ROME – Italian police describe the Russian accused of plotting the Olympic skating scandal as a top mobster with tentacles reaching into the sports world. A top Russian sports official, however, says he was just a braggart without the clout to undermine the Olympics.
Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, 53, was arrested Wednesday by Italian police on U.S. charges of scheming to buy off Olympic judges. He was unavailable for comment Thursday, although his lawyer said he "claims he is innocent."
The U.S. criminal complaint described Tokhtakhounov -- known in Russia as "the Taiwanese" because of his Asiatic-looking features -- as a "major figure in international Eurasian Organized Crime" who has been involved in "drug distribution, illegal arms sales and trafficking in stolen vehicles."
However, Vladimir Rushailo, chairman of Russia's Security Council, told NTV television in 1999 that Tokhtakhounov was not a major criminal, although he had had slight run-ins with police in the 1980s.
"The Taiwanese is in part a fictional character," Rushailo said. "He is not a real criminal ringleader. He's a gambler -- in slang, a cardsharp -- known at one time for cheating all the people on business trips and servicemen in the hotels in Sochi."
Tokhtakhounov himself showed up in NTV footage from a 1999 reception in Paris. "I do a lot of business and, you could say, I am a very big patron of the arts," he said, adding that he gave away "everything I earn."
The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified official in the government's organized-crime department as saying Russian authorities were not investigating Tokhtakhounov for any crimes. The source said Tokhtakhounov served "several" prison sentences and had been considered a Russian organized-crime ringleader prior to 1990.
Tokhtakhounov was born in Uzbekistan but is a Russian citizen. According to Italian police, that is not his only citizenship; he has passports from Uzbekistan, France, Israel and Germany.
He left Uzbekistan for Moscow in the late 1970s and moved to Europe about 15 years ago, according to the head of the Uzbek Interior Ministry's criminal department, Valijon Tashmatov.
Tokhtakhounov lived for some years in France, moving to Italy in late-1999. He first settled in Rome and then went to Milan, Italian police said.
Italian police said they first came across Tokhtakhounov during an international investigation into the Russian mafia. The investigation began when they became aware that a large amount of money was being transferred from the United States to Russian citizens, apparently in Italy.
Police Col. Giovanni Mainolfi said the money originated at the Bank of New York, was transferred to a company called Azimut Ltd. in the Cayman Islands, and then to Russian citizens. About $50 million was moved in this fashion from 1996 to 2001, he said.
Mainolfi said the money trail led to Tokhtakhounov, but would give no further details about that aspect of the investigation. He did say that Tokhtakhounov belonged to a criminal organization operating around Moscow with about 3,000 members.
"He is not the chief of this group," Mainolfi said, "but we believe he's near the top."
Tokhtakhounov's lawyer, Luca Salvarelli, who had spoken with his client's family but not with Tokhtakhounov, said the suspect would deny all charges. "He claims he is innocent," Salvarelli said.
Police say that during wiretaps in the Russian mafia investigation, they uncovered details of the alleged ice-skating fix, as well as ties to other sports figures.
Italian police gave few details, but they did cite Ukrainian tennis player Andrei Medvedev, whose Web site features a 1999 picture of himself with Tokhtakhounov, along with Russian tennis stars Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
"He's very close to Medvedev," Mainolfi said, though he did not speculate on the nature of the relationship. Medvedev could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Russian Olympic Committee spokesman Gennady Shvets said Tokhtakhounov was a former sportsman, playing professionally in Uzbekistan and briefly in Russia in his youth, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Shvets said he has known Tokhtakhounov for a decade. He said he often spends time with Russian tennis players, and enjoys hanging out with Russian and former Soviet show business stars -- a world reputed to be rife with crime.
But Shvets also said Tokhtakhounov has a propensity for bluster and bragging that could have led to the accusations.
"It's bravado," he said. "These people like to talk big about what they can do."