Journalist Fights for Former Putin Aide’s Autopsy

WASHINGTON (CN) – A reporter for Radio Free Europe sued the District of Columbia medical examiner’s office, claiming it refuses to hand over the autopsy report of Mikhail Lesin, a former aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin who was mysteriously found dead in 2015 on U.S. soil.

Mike Eckel, senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, sued the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in D.C. Superior Court on July 19, claiming it has withheld Lesin’s autopsy records, including a toxicology report, which the reporter requested through the Freedom of Information Act.

Lesin, a Russian citizen and former adviser to Putin, was found dead on Nov. 5, 2015, inside his hotel room at the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Eckel, who filed a FOIA request for the autopsy documents in January, says Lesin’s demise plays a central role in a story of “acute and growing public interest: the mysterious deaths of dozens of people around the world with ties to the Russian government.”

The story is even more important now in light of evidence about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Eckel says in his lawsuit.

“The records would be probative not only of whether a foreign national was assassinated on U.S. soil, but also of whether government agencies adequately investigated Mr. Lesin’s death, and whether they released honest and accurate information pertaining thereto,” the complaint states.

According to the complaint, early in Putin’s tenure as president, Lesin played a critical role in “wresting control of Russian television networks from their owners.”

“Later, in Putin’s second term, Mr. Lesin served as a senior presidential adviser and launched the 24-hours news network Russia Today, now called RT,” the complaint states. “And in Putin’s third term, he continued to bring Russian media outlets within the financial and political control of the state.”

However, in late 2014, Lesin mysteriously abandoned his position as the head of Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of Russian natural-gas giant Gazprom.

“The timing coincides with a possible feud Mr. Lesin had with Yuri Kovalchuk – the main shareholder of Bank Rossiya, which is closely tied to Putin – and with scrutiny of Mr. Lesin’s multimillion-dollar real estate purchases in Los Angeles, which were well beyond the financial means of a government minister,” the complaint states.

Afterwards, Lesin was in and out of the U.S, according to the lawsuit.

On one of these trips in late 2015, he attended a fundraiser in Washington, where a security guard reported Lesin appeared drunk in his hotel room.

A hotel cleaner found him dead the morning of Nov. 5.

Eckel says his FOIA request asking the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for Lesin’s autopsy was denied, and so was his appeal to the Executive Office of the Mayor.

“Mr. Eckel has exhausted the available administrative remedies with respect to his request for the autopsy records,” the complaint states.

In addition to the autopsy records, Eckel seeks the release of all correspondence between the medical examiner’s office and the FBI and State Department about Lesin’s death.

He is represented by Benjamin Herman, general counsel for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Washington, D.C.

The news outlet Eckel works for is a nonprofit media company funded by the U.S. government that provides news to 23 countries that lack a free press. According to his lawsuit, Radio Free Europe “offers a truthful alternative to the propaganda and disinformation spread by the Russian government across the former Soviet Union.”

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner did not immediately respond Tuesday to a phone call requesting comment on the lawsuit.

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