These days, it can feel like every scam has already been done. How do you top a New York City private-school grad wearing a Missoni cover-up into Rikers? But one new scam of epic proportions is refreshingly straightforward: An Oregon couple has been accused of using their boss’s American Express card to swindle him out of $34 million over the course of seven years.
The Oregonian reports that Sergey V. Lebedenko and his wife, Galina A. Lebedenko, a Ukrainian couple who run a limousine service based in Portland, were arrested on Tuesday for allegedly making $34 million worth of unauthorized charges to the credit card of their boss, The New Republic publisher Win McCormack. McCormack, who according to the Oregonian is the heir to a banking fortune, also co-founded Mother Jones and runs a handful of other publishing entities, including Tin House Books; he’s also done a few stints in local politics. (He was not identified in court records, but his attorney confirmed to the press that he was the victim.) According to the district attorney handling the case, theirs is the largest alleged heist against a single person in the history of Oregon’s federal court system. I’d like to see Anna Delvey compete with that.
Per the FBI, the Lebedenkos started working for McCormack around 2006, when he hired their limo company, which was then called Asta Limousine and Town Care Service. Eventually, it seems, the relationship evolved into something more familial — Sergey’s lawyer described his role as “essentially a personal servant,” and the couple would apparently run errands, house-sit, and make home repairs for McCormack. In a statement, McCormack described a “long and trusting relationship and friendship” he believed he had with the couple. He told FBI agents he was “utterly astounded” to find out they were stealing from him.
The couple allegedly started charging McCormack’s card in 2016, once Galina registered their business with the Oregon secretary of State. Authorities claim that, using a system of trusts and limited viability companies to launder their stolen funds, they managed to purchase a handful of multimillion-dollar homes in Oregon and California, some of which they gave to their two adult daughters and pastor. They also bought a $1.5 million private jet, which they appear to have used frequently, and which has reportedly popped up on their social-media accounts, alongside photos of their snowmobiling trips and rental listings for some of their second homes.
It is hard to believe that two employees could continue stealing this much money for seven whole years, but it appears McCormack applied a sort of willful ignorance to his suspicions about what was going on. He told federal investigators that he didn’t frequently check the bank account that was automatically paying for the cards his employees used. Attorneys said that the Lebedenkos only sent one invoice for their charges throughout their time working for McCormack, adding that the 79-year-old man “lacked presence of mind and support to prevent the egregious theft.”
Still, a handful of text exchanges in the affidavit suggest McCormack was made aware of a few deeply suspicious incidents. In one conversation from August 2022, he wrote, “Sergey did you try to charger [sic] $3400 to my Amex card?” to which his driver replied, “Of course not. Absolutely not. No no no. Why you always think I’m doing something? If I’m problem in your life fire me and that’s it.”
In another conversation from November 2022, McCormack wrote, “Sergey American Express tells me you have charged me about … $300,000 over the course of October and November, probably more. I warned you about this and you and Galina didn’t pay any attention. If this keeps up even a little bit longer you will be fired for sure.” In a lengthy reply, Sergey told McCormack he and his wife “didn’t charge you more than we agreed with you last year,” adding that his daughter had recently suffered a miscarriage. He told McCormack he’d be willing to work for free because the publisher had been “like a father to me.” He signed off with: “Sorry about that again and have fun at golden door little vacation! I love you Boss [heart emoji].”
Eventually, McCormack seems to have reached a breaking point. His legal team alerted the FBI of possible fraud in December, and on Tuesday, the Lebedenkos were arrested on charges of wire fraud and money laundering. Federal agents have reportedly seized “eye-watering” amounts of money and gold from the couple’s various homes, including $100,000 in cash, 150 ounces of gold bullion, and 12 firearms. Despite $20 million of unaccounted-for funds that they stole, they were released from jail on Tuesday, though their passports have been seized and they’ve been ordered not to leave Oregon.