WASHINGTON (CN) – BuzzFeed investigative reporter Jason Leopold brought a federal complaint Friday to pry loose government records that could shed more light on conflicting accounts of how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former media czar died in a Washington hotel two years ago.
Russian officials initially said Mikhail Lesin, whose body was found on Nov. 5, 2015, had died from a heart attack in his Washington hotel room in DuPont Circle. The Washington medical examiner, however, later ruled that blunt force trauma to the head had killed him.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia said a series of drunken falls after a days-long drinking binge killed him, and ruled his death an accident at the conclusion of a nearly year-long investigation.
Leopold’s employer, BuzzFeed, joined him in the July 28 lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., federal court seeking access to investigative records to further illuminate the circumstances and conflicting accounts surrounding Lesin’s death.
They filed the complaint the same day that BuzzFeed News reported that two FBI agents and a U.S. intelligence officer – who were not involved in the investigation of Lesin’s death but said they heard from colleagues who were – said that Lesin was actually bludgeoned to death.
One of them told BuzzFeed, “What I can tell you is that there isn’t a single person inside the bureau who believes this guy got drunk, fell down, and died. Everyone thinks he was whacked and that Putin or the Kremlin were behind it.”
According to the report, the sources said the Department of Justice had paid for Lesin’s hotel room and intended to interview him about the inner workings of Kremlin-backed news outlet Russia Today, or RT, which Lesin founded.
Lesin, however, died the night before the scheduled interview.
Other outlets have also reported on mixed messages from the U.S. government about Lesin, the lawsuit notes.
“According to Time magazine, ‘the medical examiner also revealed that Lesin’s body had apparently been pummeled, with injuries to his arms, legs, neck and torso,’” the complaint states.
According to the complaint, the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and the FBI began looking into Lesin after U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., asked the agency to criminally investigate him in 2014 for alleged money laundering and possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Leopold says he first requested information from the FBI about the investigation of Lesin’s death back in April 2016, and did so again in February this year.
The FBI, citing a backlog, has yet to say when it will comply with the Freedom of Information Act request, according to the lawsuit.
On May 10, the complaint states, Leopold requested the complete investigative case file on Lesin’s death, including video footage and interview transcripts, from the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys at the DOJ.
Five days later, he says he requested records mentioning Lesin from the DOJ’s Criminal Division.
Neither has responded to the request, the complaint states.
The FBI and the DOJ, along with its criminal division and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, are named as defendants.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Matt Mittenthal, spokesman for BuzzFeed News, said in a statement, “In these suits, and any others we file seeking information from the government, we believe that the matters in question – whether it be an alleged Russian assassination on American soil, or an alleged connection between aides to the President’s campaign and Kremlin officials – are clearly in the public interest.”
Leopold and Buzzfeed have asked the court to order the DOJ and its components to search for and hand over any records responsive to the FOIA requests. They are represented by Matthew Topic with Chicago-based Loevy & Loevy.
Their complaint was filed a week after Mike Eckel, senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, sued the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in D.C. Superior Court, claiming it has withheld Lesin’s autopsy records, including a toxicology report.