Russian mobster extradited from Ukraine and sentenced in $9+ million fraud scheme involving exotic car leasing business catering to drug traffickers and others
ATLANTA - Mani Chulpayev, the leader of a luxury car leasing scheme that operated in the Atlanta and Miami areas from 2009 to 2016, has been sentenced to prison and ordered to pay more than $4.6 million in restitution. Chulpayev was arrested in October 2020 while hiding in Ukraine, using a fake identity, and working as a movie producer. His conviction marks the end of a multi-agency collaboration known as “Operation Riding Dirty,” which targeted a web of drug traffickers utilizing multiple, hard-to-trace cars, the fraudsters who laundered drug money for the traffickers and left banks and investors on the hook for millions of dollars of losses, and the corrupt government officials who facilitated and protected the traffickers.
“Chulpayev ran a sophisticated scheme that inflicted vast losses on banks and the individuals he recruited to assist his fraudulent scheme,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan. “Chulpayev then used the fruits of his fraud – a fleet of exotic cars – to enable drug traffickers to operate, evade detection, and launder their illicit proceeds. The disruption of his illegal network is the culmination of an unrelenting, coordinated, and comprehensive investigation by our agency partners.”
Robert J. Murphy, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Division stated, “Through hard work, this illegal drug distribution and money laundering network has been removed from our streets. This criminal enterprise had no regard for the potential impact of their actions.”
“This sentence punishes the defendant’s extensive criminal conduct and serves as a significant deterrent to others who would think about engaging in these types of illegal activities,” said Tommy D. Coke, Inspector in Charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service Atlanta Division. “Postal Inspectors and our law enforcement partners are proud of the prosecutive results of this aggressive and extensive investigation to dismantle this criminal organization.”
According to U.S. Attorney Buchanan, the charges and other information presented in court: Chulpayev was born in the Soviet Union but moved to the United States with his family at the age of 12. By age 20, he acted as the lead money handler and scheme organizer for a Russian crime ring operating in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, and engaged in extortion, arson, kidnapping, human trafficking, and various frauds. Following a previous federal conviction and prison term, he moved to Atlanta, where he was soon arrested for operating a chop shop selling stolen cars with altered VINs and fraudulent titles. Following a second federal conviction and prison term, in 2009, he started a car leasing business in Atlanta catering to drug traffickers who used untraceable cash deposits to pay Chulpayev for cars registered in other people’s names. In 2012, Chulpayev expanded his operation to Miami with the help of coconspirators Paul Carruth, Lyle Stephen Livesay, and Kimberly Ann Reiss.
To create an inventory of these vehicles, Chulpayev and his associates recruited straw purchasers – people who would buy luxury cars in their names but had no intention of actually using the vehicles. The straw purchasers then gave the cars to Chulpayev to be leased to others, including to drug traffickers who used drug proceeds to pay Chulpayev for the pricey leases, and to high-profile clients connected to the music and sports industries. The straw purchasers bought the cars using bank loans and financed several luxury vehicles in a short period of time before the new loans appeared on their credit reports. Chulpayev and his associates gave the straw purchasers falsified documents, including fake paychecks, to use for the loan applications. Chulpayev initially made the loan payments for the straw purchasers. But when he stopped, his straw purchasers were left responsible for handling the payments. When the straw purchasers inevitably defaulted on the loans, Chulpayev left the banks to try to repossess the cars from the drug traffickers or to locate vehicles moved to other states, stolen, or exported to foreign countries. Chulpayev eventually orchestrated the purchase of more than 115 cars, including Bentleys, Aston Martins, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Porsches worth more than $9 million.
One of Chulpayev’s drug trafficking clients was Kevin Johnson, also known as “Webb,” who was the leader of a drug trafficking operation in the Atlanta area that moved packages of drugs through the mail and employed as a talent scout and booking agent for rap artists. Johnson leased several flashy cars for members of his drug trafficking operation. Following a federal wiretap investigation, Johnson and four of his associates were convicted of federal drug trafficking charges. In a spinoff investigation, 17 mail carriers and other employees of the U.S. Postal Service were convicted of collecting bribes to deliver packages of drugs through the mail.
Chulpayev also used relationships with corrupt law enforcement agents to advance and protect his scheme by helping him repossess cars, arrest competitors and enemies, and avoid arrest himself. He first gained the officers’ trust by feeding them information about his drug trafficker clients, but gradually curried their favor through bribes and other means. Robert Bentivegna was a Detective with the Dunwoody Police Department and a Task Force Officer with the U.S. Secret Service who received bribes from Chulpayev in the form of airline tickets, legal fees, and luxury cars for his children. In exchange, Bentivegna agreed to alert Chulpayev about any arrest warrants issued for him. Bentivegna was convicted of federal computer access crimes and sentenced to prison.
Mani Chulpayev, also known as “Mani Chilpayen,” and “Immanuel Cohen,” 46, of Kew Gardens, New York, was sentenced to ten years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay restitution of $4,663,978.73. Chulpayev was convicted of conspiracy to commit bank and mail fraud on July 31, 2023, after he pleaded guilty.
The following defendants were previously convicted as part of Operation Riding Dirty:
- Lyle Stephen Livesay, 36, of Colbert, Georgia, was sentenced on July 15, 2021, to eight years, one month in prison (with credit for four years served on a prior conviction), followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay restitution of $2,644,722.15, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit bank and mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
- Paul Alexander Carruth, 39, of Boynton Beach, Florida, was sentenced on November 28, 2018, to five years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay restitution of $93,498.36, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering.
- Kimberly Ann Reiss, 38, of Miami Beach, Florida, was sentenced on July 15, 2021, to five years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay restitution of $2,674,563.05, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit bank and mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
- Kevin Michael Johnson, 48, of Lilburn, Georgia, was sentenced on June 16, 2016, to six years, six months in prison, followed by four years of supervised release, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute controlled substances.
- Walter Ray Hamilton, 42, of Stone Mountain, Georgia, was sentenced on November 2, 2016, to six years, three months in prison, followed by six years of supervised release, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute controlled substances and maintaining a place for distributing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.
- James Robert Jones, also known as “Sean Jones,” 50, of Dallas, Georgia, was sentenced on November 2, 2016, to five years, ten months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute controlled substances.
- Jeorge Collier, 38, of Lithonia, Georgia, was sentenced on December 21, 2017, to five years, one month in prison, followed by seven years of supervised release, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute controlled substances and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
- Eric Swiney, 51, of Forest Park, Georgia, was sentenced on May 10, 2016, to five years, ten months in prison, followed by four years of supervised release, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute controlled substances.
- Robert Pasquale Bentivegna, 73, of Woodstock, Georgia, was sentenced on June 30, 2015, to two months in prison, followed by two years of supervised release, and ordered to pay a fine of $1,500, after pleading guilty to unauthorized use of a computer.
Additionally, from February 13, 2018, to March 30, 2023, 17 U.S. Postal Service employees and one non-postal employee were convicted in four separate indictments and sentenced to a range of three to nine years of prison for bribery, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, attempt to distribute controlled substances, and unlawfully using the mail to distribute controlled substances.
This case was investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Postal Inspection Service, with valuable assistance provided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and the United States Marshals Service.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Garrett L. Bradford prosecuted the case.
This effort is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) operation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found at https://www.justice.gov/OCDETF.
For further information please contact the U.S. Attorney’s Public Affairs Office at USAGAN.PressEmails@usdoj.gov or (404) 581-6016. The Internet address for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is http://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga.