Another Twist in Rudy Wine Fraud Saga

Some of the fake bottles recovered from a raid on Kurniawan's apartment.
© FBI | Some of the fake bottles recovered from a raid on Kurniawan's apartment.
There is some confusion as to whether the world's most famous wine forger will be deported or not.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Wednesday, 11-Nov-2020

Last week, Wine-Searcher reported that convicted wine forger Rudy Kurniawan was on the verge of being released from prison, and would be deported.

Today, we must retract half of that. Kurniawan was released from one US federal prison on Friday, November 6 – one day early. He is now in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to its website. But we are no longer completely certain that he will be deported.

Related stories:
King of Wine Fraud Facing Freedom
Running the Numbers on Rudy's Fake Wines
Inside the Weird World of Rudy Kurniawan

In asking for information about Kurniawan's potential deportation, Wine-Searcher has gotten a weird runaround from ICE. An ICE spokesperson first claimed not to be able to identify Kurniawan, even though Wine-Searcher sent his name and Bureau of Prisoners register number, which should lead ICE immediately to all the US government's information about him. The next day an ICE spokesperson claimed he wasn't in ICE custody, though the timing of that email makes it likely that he was.

On Monday, ICE said it was researching our query. So we waited another day to publish this. But we received no further response Tuesday: Not "ICE doesn't give out that information", or some other ordinary bureaucratic denial that reporters are accustomed to. These professions of ignorance by an official government spokesperson and serial dodging of a simple question are actually very unusual.

And it's not just because ICE doesn't like us: another news reporter got exactly the same weird response. News reporters don't usually share notes on stories but these are unusual times.

The question is, why? Why would ICE evade such a simple query? We're not crusading immigration attorneys asking about the conditions of El Paso Processing Center, where Kurniawan is being held, according to ICE's website. (Though if you recognize the name, it's because guards there have been accused of sexually assaulting prisoners. It also had a Covid-19 outbreak last month.) We're not relatives or friends of Kurniawan. Why not just answer?

We asked the Indonesian consulate in Houston if it had any word of Kurniawan's deportation. Unlike ICE, the Indonesian consulate didn't deny knowing who he is.

"It's not up to us," the Indonesian consulate spokesperson said. "It's up to ICE. Everything is up to ICE."

An attorney familiar with the case suggested that ICE may never answer the question about Kurniawan's eventual fate, and that one day his name will just disappear from ICE's prisoner locator. Perhaps. But we don't feel 100 percent confident anymore that such an event would mean Kurniawan has been deported.

Moreover, Wine-Searcher has learned that Kurniawan – who had court orders to pay $28.4 million in restitution to victims and forfeit $20 million to the US government (the "money judgment") – has several stashes of wine, in the U.S. and elsewhere, that have apparently not been seized.

In May, Deputy US Marshall Crystal Vazquez filed a declaration with the federal court in New York where Kurniawan was convicted. She said that of the $20 million in property Kurniawan owes the US government, more than $18 million had not been collected.

"Since the entry of the Preliminary Order of Forfeiture, despite exercise of due diligence in investigating the assets of the defendant, the Government has been unable to locate the proceeds of the defendant’s offenses," Vazquez wrote.

Kurniawan's family is good at hiding money. His uncle Eddy Tansil was convicted in 1994 of embezzling $420 million from an Indonesian bank. The money was not recovered, and two years later Tansil bribed his way out of prison and escaped to China, where he is believed to be today.

In 2019, the US government seized $2.1 million worth of wine that Kurniawan had stored at the Wine Cellarage in New York city. But Vazquez listed a lot of other wine owned by Kurniawan that the auction house Christie's is holding, out of reach of the US government.

"During this investigation I have discovered that Christie's was in possession of hundreds of bottles of wine previously held in the Bronx, New York on behalf Rudy Kurniawan," Vazquez wrote. "In addition, I discovered that Christies is currently in possession of hundreds of bottles of wine owned by Rudy Kurniawan that are being stored in other locations including London, England and Geneva, Switzerland."

The US government is not the only party looking for Kurniawan's assets. A spokesperson for wine collector Bill Koch told Wine Spectator last week that Kurniawan still owes Koch $3 million from a settlement in a lawsuit Koch filed, and that Koch wants the US Department of Justice to keep updating Koch on Kurniawan's status.

Wine-Searcher cannot imagine a good reason why Kurniawan would not be deported from the US after his conviction for fraud. He is not a US citizen and had a deportation order outstanding on him since 2003.

However, at his sentencing, he spoke of his need to care for his elderly mother, who lives in California. It's possible that he will petition for compassionate release into the US.

In 2016, 86 percent of ICE's prisoners at El Paso Processing Center were deported, according to TRAC Immigration, while 7 percent were bonded out and 2 percent were "paroled" free, usually for compassionate reasons.

It's also not impossible that money talks. Kurniawan's uncle bribed his way out of prison in the 1990s when Indonesia was run by an elected dictator. And Kurniawan's assets have apparently vanished. I draw no conclusions but you are welcome to do so.

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