Miranda Patrucic has exposed corruption across Central Asia and in Europe. The award-winning journalist talks to Fraud Magazine about her experiences and the challenges she’s faced in tracking down corrupt officials across the globe and why they still evade the law.

Miranda Patrucic had heard the talk about Montenegro’s long-standing leader Milo Dukanovic and how he’d amassed a level of wealth that was vastly disproportionate to his meager government official’s salary. It all sounded very dubious. So, in 2009 when Patrucic, then an up-and-coming investigative reporter, was assigned to do a profile on the politician, she started digging into the public records to see what suspicious assets she could find. This was about to be her first big scoop.

While Montenegro had a land registry, you could only search for a property owner if you knew their national identity number, which Patrucic didn’t have. So, with the aid of a data-searching add-on from free software site Mozilla, she downloaded hundreds of land records from a randomly chosen wealthy area of Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. The hard work paid off. She found a property connected to a member of the president’s family and in turn a national identity number that acted as a key to unlock ownership in other properties.

“It was a kind of wild goose chase,” Patrucic tells Fraud Magazine. “I didn’t know if I was going to get anything. But once I found that one property it gave me the ID, and I was able to do further searches with that ID. … I found more information on the family, looked into their business, and it turned out to be a huge story.”

Indeed, Patrucic and other reporters eventually found that Dukanovic — who’d held power in the small Balkan country either as prime minister or president since the 1990s — owned or controlled properties or shares in companies worth $14.7 million, which stood in sharp contrast to his monthly salary of $1,700. His brother and sister also held millions of U.S. dollars in various types of assets. The first family was suspected of making substantial sums from the tobacco smuggling trade that supported the country’s economy during wars that followed the dissolution of the Republic of Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was part. Patrucic uncovered that since the wars Dukanovic and his family had been investing in real estate, stocks and other lucrative business deals — often involving clear conflicts of interest. This included the rather suspicious privatization in 2006 of a state-owned bank, First Bank, which Dukanovic’s brother ended up buying after being the only bidder on the sale. (See “Dukanovic’s Montenegro: A Family Business,” by Miranda Patrucic, Mirsad Brkic and Svjetlana Celic, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, June 2, 2009 and “Unholy Alliances,” by Miranda Patrucic, Dejan Milovac, Stevan Dojcinovic, OCCRP.)

First Bank became the focus of Patrucic’s next big story. She set out to find an elusive audit that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) had performed on the bank after the Dukanovic administration had bailed it out in 2008 during the global financial crisis. The government had quickly replaced the central bank governor with an employee from First Bank, who’d hired PwC. The PwC report disappeared from public view, Patrucic explained. “It was basically a banking secret,” she says.

After three years of asking bankers, reporters and other sources about the PwC audit’s whereabouts, she found someone who was willing to share it, as well as an internal central bank report that took place after First Bank’s collapse. “[They] revealed how the bank catered to organized crime by opening accounts for the biggest drug lords in the country,” she says.

The reports were solid proof of how First Bank freely extended loans to Dukanovic and his cronies, who sometimes failed to repay those debts and used the money to fund financially dubious companies. The investigation put Patrucic’s reporting on the map, so much so that the European Union delayed Montenegro’s application for EU membership, which the country is still waiting for today. (See “First Bank ‑ First Family,” OCCRP, May 20, 2012 and “Montenegro: Prime Minister’s Family Bank Catered to Organized Crime,” by Miranda Patrucic, OCCRP, April 8, 2014.)

Get me a miracle

When Patrucic was first making her way in the world of journalism, her editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) — a global network of investigative journalists focused on organized crime and corruption — would tell her, “Get me a miracle.”

She was never quite sure what he meant, but she often thought about a twist on the saying “Luck is a residue of design,” often attributed to the 17th century English poet John Milton but used widely to mean that luck, or in this case a miracle, comes about through hard work.

“I really learned that if I turned every stone, I would get my miracle each time, and I would find this one fact, this one document, one piece of information that really makes the story that was impossible to find,” says Patrucic, who now has several prestigious awards under her belt for her work as an investigative journalist.

That dogged pursuit of the truth helped Patrucic unearth Dukanovic’s illicit wealth and break a string of big corruption stories. Over the course of her career, Patrucic has exposed billions in telecom bribes in Uzbekistan; uncovered hidden assets among the ruling elite in Azerbaijan and Montenegro; and revealed a billion-euro arms trade between Europe and the Gulf states that helped fuel Middle East conflicts. She’s also a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and has worked on the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers.

She is this year’s recipient of the ACFE Guardian Award, which is bestowed on someone whose determination, perseverance and commitment to the truth has contributed significantly to the fight against fraud. Patrucic will be a keynoter at the 34th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference June 11-16 in Seattle, Washington (and virtual).

When Patrucic spoke to Fraud Magazine earlier this year, she’d just been promoted to editor-in-chief at the OCCRP, where she’s worked since its founding in 2006. She takes over from Drew Sullivan, the American co-founder of OCCRP and the editor who encouraged her to find those miracles.

Patrucic also trains aspiring journalists how to follow the money and uncover corruption and money laundering in authoritarian regimes where skilled journalists are sorely needed. She believes that’s the best way to pay back her teachers and the profession.

An early start

A native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Patrucic didn’t initially aspire to become a journalist, or indeed be an investigative reporter, but she slowly fell into the field. “Journalism was a calling rather than a conscious choice,” says Patrucic. “I think I was chosen by journalism.”

Even so, she got an early start in the field, working on a local newspaper over the summer holidays when she was 15, and then — still in her teens — clinching a job as a presenter on a local TV station. By the time she was set to go to university to study philosophy, she thought her days as a journalist were over. But that wasn’t to be. In 2002, the BBC hired her as an assistant on a project to reform public broadcasting in Bosnia. Then one day, Patrucic saw a job announcement at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia, which Sullivan founded in 2004. She knew little about investigative journalism, but it sparked a flame in Patrucic who thought that Bosnia’s extremely biased, post-war media was in dire need of some honest reporting.

Bosnia’s cruel and brutal war from 1992 to 1995 had instilled in Patrucic a desire to tell the truth, inform and right wrongs. “I think a lot of this need for justice and truth came from being a kid during the war in Sarajevo,” she says. “In the war, you see how insignificant you are in this world and that your life can be taken away at any point. The bigger interest was in how the war would end.”

The job at the Center for Investigative Reporting paid much less than other offers she received, but she took it anyway. When Sullivan and fellow investigative journalist Paul Radu co-founded the OCCRP, she became the organization’s first fact-checker and worked her way up to become an editor and reporter. “I never really thought about it as a career,” she says. “I always thought I would work on one more story, as I really loved it, but then go into the real world. But then every story became an immense source of satisfaction because I saw how it made a difference.”

Corruption on the Silk Road

Indeed, her reporting has made all the difference in Central Asia, the region she covered for OCCRP before becoming editor-in-chief in March 2023. Central Asia, which incorporates the former Soviet republics Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, lies at the center of the Silk Road, the ancient trade and cultural route that linked China to the West and remains an important hub for goods making their way east to west.

It was in Kyrgyzstan, at the center of that trade route, that Patrucic — with the help of local journalists — covered one of her most impactful stories, which involved corruption stemming from the flow of goods through that country that eventually resulted in the toppling of a corrupt government.

“If you want to move goods from China to Russia, Uzbekistan and then onto Europe you go through Kyrgyzstan,” says Patrucic. “It is a massively important partner on a trade route for China. You are talking about billions of billions of dollars in different kinds of goods.”

In 2019, Patrucic, along with local journalists at Radio Azattyk and Kloop Media, caught a break. Aierken Saimaiti, a self-confessed money launderer, contacted them to volunteer a treasure trove of documents that revealed how a secretive Uighur family ran an illicit trading empire with the help of a powerful customs boss, whose political connections made him virtually untouchable. (The Uighur, also spelled Uyghur, are Turkic-speaking people native to the Altay Mountains, which stretch through China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan, and have long played an important role along the Silk Road. See “Uyghur People,” Britannica.)

The investigation revealed that Khabibula Abdukadyr, the Chinese-born head of the Uighur family, had teamed up with Raimbek Matraimov — a former deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s customs service whose brother was a member of parliament — to take over three customs terminals through bribery and other illicit means. The Abdukadyr and Matraimov families garnered millions of dollars in profits by moving goods through Kyrgyzstan’s vital crossroads and avoiding customs fees in a highly organized scam that went far beyond the petty bribery that typically plagued the country.

Poring over Saimaiti’s documents and corroborating the evidence with other traders, businessmen and officials, the team of journalists discovered how Saimaiti had helped launder at least $700 million in illicit funds over five years, moving much of it abroad into companies run by Abdukadyr.

The documents included wire transfer slips, bank statements, Saimaiti’s ledger, cash and declaration forms, which all helped to link the two families and the assets they’d bought through their illicit customs scam. They moved their ill-gotten gains out of the country with the help of couriers who falsely declared them as their own, while truck drivers dodged strict currency controls by hiding the funds in spare tires. Saimaiti even provided the reporters with a rare photo of members of the Abdukadyr family, which up until then had managed to keep any of their images out of the public domain. (See “The 700-Million-Dollar Man,” by OCCRP, RFE/RL, and Kloop, Nov. 21, 2019.)

The dangers of uncovering a criminal enterprise this large soon became apparent. “We were working on this story in regular meetings in Prague, and then one day in the morning we got the message that our source [Saimaiti] had been gunned down,” says Patrucic.

Saimaiti, who’d approached journalists in November 2019 after a falling out with the Abdukadyr family, increasingly feared for his life after escaping to Turkey. Just weeks after arranging meetings with journalists in Istanbul, Saimaiti was dead. Turkish officials laid the blame for the slaying on two Kyrgyz citizens and a Syrian, who they said had links to militant Islamic groups. The perpetrators told the police they killed Saimaiti because he lacked piety and wasn’t a Muslim.

Matraimov denied any connection with the victim even though the documents that Saimaiti had provided showed how thousands of dollars had been wired to the Matraimov’s family foundation. “My guess is that they contracted to kill him,” says Patrucic. (See “‘His Murder Is Necessary’: Man Who Exposed Kyrgyz Smuggling Scheme Was Hunted by Contract Killers,” by OCCRP, RFE/RL, Kloop, and Bellingcat, Nov. 10, 2020 and “Kyrgyz Charity Run by Powerful Family Received Suspicious Funds Linked to Murdered Money Launderer,” by RFE/RL, OCCRP, Bellingcat, and Kloop, June 29, 2020.)

Following Saimaiti’s murder, Patrucic worked day and night with her journalist partners to publish a series of stories in late 2019 called “Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia,” based on what Saimaiti’s documents revealed about the secretive Abdukadyr family. The articles sparked demonstrations in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Just as the country’s parliamentary elections were underway in 2020, OCCRP published another series of stories, this time on Matraimov, his luxurious lifestyle and the illicit customs empire. Locals struggling to make a living in the poor country were outraged. (See “The Matraimov Kingdom,” OCCRP, Kloop, RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, and Bellingcat, Oct. 2, 2020 and “Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia,” OCCRP, Nov. 21, 2019.)

When two parties with close ties to the president and one backed by Matraimov garnered a quarter of the vote each, protests erupted in the capital, eventually leading to the annulment of the elections amid accusations of vote-buying and voter intimidation. Soon after then-President Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned. (See “Kyrgyzstan election: Sunday’s results annulled after mass protests,” BBC, Oct. 6, 2020 and “Pro-Government Election Victory Sparks Overnight Revolution in Kyrgyzstan,” by OCCRP, Oct. 6, 2020.)

“Once we published the story, people went on the streets and before we knew it they had taken control of the presidential palace,” remembers Patrucic. “I had never seen anything like it. It was crazy how it unfolded. The investigation into corruption caused so much anger because the party that was run by the Matraimov family literally tried to seize power and people were outraged.”

The importance of collaboration

Collaboration, which was key to the Kyrgyzstan story, is a theme that runs through Patrucic’s history of reporting. As with anti-fraud work, information sharing within and among organizations often happens far too little, and especially so in the intensely competitive media world. But it can make all the difference. When the OCCRP was tracking down information about the Matraimov and Abdukadyr families, it worked with three local news organizations, whose language skills and local know-how were key to getting these stories and facts required to publish them. “I could have all the follow-the-money expertise to track offshore companies, but some things I could never do without a local partner,” says Patrucic.

That type of cooperation was essential in getting the word out about the depth of corruption in Kyrgyzstan that enraged locals in the poor Central Asian nation and ultimately led to the downfall of the government. “The revolution that took place in Kyrgyzstan might not have reached so many people if we hadn’t published the same story, on the same day in so many languages,” she adds.

“You realize the value of cooperation in the way that you radically share your findings. I might find something in Azerbaijan that might not be interesting for my story but very relevant for British journalists. This way you multiply the impact. It doesn’t mean people won’t read my story because the same topic is published in the British press. It just means they will get a more complete truth from different angles.”

Sometimes, though, cooperation has its limits, at least for journalists who play different roles from law enforcement, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other activists. Journalists are restricted in how they can share information with law enforcement and other fraud fighters. “We do talk to criminals, so I can’t tell the police, ‘Hey, I talked to this criminal,’” says Patrucic. “They wouldn’t talk to me if they knew I was going to the police.”

While sharing information isn’t always possible, Patrucic says that there are ways to collaborate. For instance, in 2016, the OCCRP and Transparency International (TI) — an NGO dedicated to fighting corruption — launched the global anti-corruption consortium with the goal of breaking down some of the siloes that NGOs and journalists have traditionally worked in. The idea is that TI reuses some of the investigative findings of OCCRP and other media to pressure policymakers to stamp out influence peddling, money laundering and other forms of corruption.

An example of this collaboration happened in 2017, when OCCRP exposed how the ruling elite in Azerbaijan had set up a $2.9 billion money laundering operation and slush fund that was run through U.K. shell companies and Danske Bank to influence European politicians. TI’s call for action on the back of these revelations resulted in an independent investigation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and some high-level resignations. (See “Global Anti-Corruption Consortium,” Transparency International.)

“As a journalist, your job really stops at telling the truth,” says Patrucic. “On a personal level you might want justice to be served, but at the same time you have to let other people take care of the rest.”

Smoke screens

Cooperation like this is arguably more important than ever as fraudsters and other criminals become more sophisticated at evading justice. Like fraud examiners, investigative journalists face uphill challenges in collecting evidence that tie perpetrators to particular assets and crimes. Take oligarch Alisher Usmanov, one of the world’s richest men with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and currently sanctioned by the U.S. The Uzbek-born businessman has adeptly jumbled funds and assets in all directions to keep governments, law enforcement and journalists off his tracks. (See “Sanctioning an Oligarch Is Not So Easy: Why the Money Trail of Alisher Usmanov, One of Russia’s Wealthiest Men, Is Difficult to Follow,” by Miranda Patrucic and Ilya Lozovsky, OCCRP, March 22, 2022.)

“We are lucky to have gained some insight into a fraction of the transactions he did,” says Patrucic. “He has used relatives to hold accounts worth billions of dollars in secretive Swiss banks. He has used trusts, which is one of the most opaque structures nowadays, to detach himself from those assets, even though those assets are widely known to be owned by him.”

There’s now also a growing industry that facilitates the laundering of criminal reputations. “We eliminate your past we help build your future,” (sic) is the catchphrase on the website of Eliminalia, which focuses on eliminating all negative digital crumbs that people — or their enemies — leave on their travels through the internet. While people have the right to manage their personal data and reputations as stated in Europe’s 2018 General Data Protection Regulation, which allows for the “right to be forgotten,” reputation management firms like Eliminalia also reportedly help clients who are fraudsters, drug traffickers and other criminals. (See “Eliminalia: A Reputation Laundromat for Criminals,” by OCCRP and IRPI, Feb. 17, 2023 and “The Spanish firm that uses dubious methods to ‘erase your past’ from the internet,” by David Pegg, The Guardian, Disinfo black ops, Feb. 17, 2023.)

“The problem nowadays is that there is no punishment for the facilitator,” says Patrucic. “If you are a proxy, serving to hide someone’s ownership of money that is being used to buy weapons or pay for a hit man, there is no punishment. People are allowed to make money facilitating corruption and crime. Because so little action is taken and there is so much money to be made, people are coming up with more and more ways to hide criminals’ involvement.”

Nor does it help that a European court ruling last year reversed efforts to open beneficial ownership registries and create more transparency in offshore havens.

[See sidebar: “A blow to offshore transparency”.]

Tools of the trade

Still, investigative journalists have their own tools to expose corruption, in addition to leaks, such as the Panama, Pandora and Paradise Papers that exposed offshore investments and havens of the world’s richest people and have been fodder for corruption stories among a multitude of journalists.

The OCCRP is also developing a global archive of research material for investigative journalists, which as of publication covered 140 countries. (See “OCCRP Aleph.”) “It is basically a repository of all kinds of leaks, databases and documents we were able to obtain over the years,” Patrucic says.

Patrucic also uses tools that are freely available on the internet or through news services such as Google Maps and websites to track flights and vessels. Social media has also aided Patrucic in her reporting. For example, in countries like Azerbaijan the government has closed access to journalists who wish to search business and land registries, but government officials and their families still love to boast in revealing posts about their wealth on Instagram and TikTok.

In the introductory case on Kyrgyzstan, Patrucic helped track the disproportionate wealth of former customs official Raimbek Matraimov by following his wife’s Instagram site. “I think I am one of very few journalists who knows every Dolce & Gabbana collection — every print and pattern, and the prices of their shoes and dresses — because we spent months looking at the designer outfits she was posting,” Patrucic laughs. “We found that she had about half a million dollars in clothing.” (See “The ‘Beautiful’ Life of a Kyrgyz Customs Official,” by OCCRP, RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, Kloop, and Bellingcat, Dec. 14, 2020.)

Disappointments and challenges ahead

Investigative journalism can be extremely satisfying when stories have a real impact. But it can also be frustrating when investigations fail to stop those caught in corruption scandals. The Abdukadyr family cited in the first case above is still a major investor in Uzbekistan and continues to have assets in the U.K., says Patrucic. “There are so many cases we expose that go under the radar,” she adds. “I can only think that it is because of a lack of resources.” (See “The UK’s kleptocracy problem,” Chatham House, Research Paper, December 2021 and “Britain as a ‘force for good’ in Central Asia Working Group: Kyrgyzstan paper,” The Foreign Policy Centre.)

Patrucic and her fellow investigative journalists are now keeping a close eye on Ukraine, which has had its own struggles with and successes against corruption. And should Ukraine win its war against Russia, many are hoping that the country will ultimately prevail in clamping down on kleptocracy and dodge the waves of corruption that have typically come with the flood of post-war money. (See “Battling Corruption in Ukraine—and the U.S.,” by James Lardner, The New Yorker, Feb. 27, 2023 and “Fraud in reconstruction: What awaits Ukraine?” by Latesha Love-Grayer, CFE, Irina Carnevale and Toni Gillich, Fraud Magazine, March/April 2023.)

What’s certain though is that with money comes corruption, and that means investigative journalists like Patrucic and fraud examiners will require an ever-vigilant eye. “One of the lessons for me from being in the war in Bosnia is how important it is to keep a track of the money flows because no matter how good the president is, how amazing people are, corruption is an integral part of humanity.”

Paul Kilby is editor-in-chief of Fraud Magazine. Contact him at pkilby@ACFE.com.