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The Sammies Series: Q&A with Citi and the multi-agency team that led an international criminal investigation

November 16, 2020

Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency whose value has swelled from a fraction of a cent to thousands of dollars in roughly a decade. But Bitcoin users are difficult to identify and, as a result, sometimes use this digital currency for illegal activities. Recently, a team of federal agents worked together to take down the largest-ever child pornography site with more than 250,000 videos that operated on the darknet using bitcoins, resulting in the arrest of the website operator and more than 330 users and the rescue of 25 exploited children in the U.S. and abroad.

Special Agent Christopher M. Janczewski of the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Zia M. Faruqui of the Justice Department and Criminal Analyst Kimberly A. Reece of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency led this international criminal investigation. They were selected as 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals finalists in the Safety, Security and International Affairs category.

Marcy Forman, managing director of the Anti-Money Laundering Global Investigations Unit at Citi, with extensive federal law enforcement experience herself, spoke with the investigators about their case, their career in public service and what they would like the public to know about working in government.

Forman: How did the team get together to work on this case?

Faruqui: I think a lot of it was just organic. Chris, as a cybercrimes special agent, worked on the takedown of AlphaBay, the largest online darknet market that sold illegal drugs, stolen information and illegal services such as hacking tools. During a conversation after he finished that case, we were discussing what he wanted to do next. I suggested possibly tackling child pornography cases. Three weeks later, Chris came back saying, “Okay, I found the largest darknet child pornography marketplace. It’s in South Korea. We can take this thing down.” Since it was located in South Korea, I reached out to Kim to join our team because, having previously worked with her on a North Korean weapons proliferation case, I knew her expertise and connections with the South Korean law enforcement community would be invaluable.

Forman: Cryptocurrency is an emerging market. What were your thoughts when you saw bitcoins being used on a dark web child pornography site?

Janczewski: As a financial investigator for the IRS, I was trained to follow the money. When I learned cryptocurrency was involved in child pornography, I approached it like any money laundering case. The website was monetized through a point system: you buy points using bitcoin, redeem those points to download child pornography videos or earn points by contributing a video.

Forman: How did you collaborate with the South Korean government during this case?

Janczewski: We were all working toward a common goal of taking down the website and holding people accountable on both sides. Even though we couldn’t speak the same language, it was really inspiring to see the passion and everyone come together. It was great to represent not only ourselves and our agencies, but also our country.

Forman: How did you deal with the disturbing subject matter of this criminal investigation?

Faruqui: We were motivated to do it for the children.  Working with the subject of child pornography is extremely distressing, but we were willing to take it on as a team to make an impactful contribution and change lives. After we finished our work, we had a professional counselor come in to talk about managing any trauma related to the case.

Forman: Why did you choose to work in government? And what would you say to someone considering a career in public service?

Reece: I started with the U.S. Army in the 1980s and went on to work for the DHS. I’ve worked in most of our 13 investigative categories, but this investigation has so far been the most rewarding. If you are hardworking, dedicated and self-motivated with the right skill set, you will do great in a government career.

Janczewski: I work with some of the most hardworking people in any industry and seeing their passion really motivates me to do my best. From a job satisfaction standpoint, there’s no other way I would have it. I am being paid to work for a good cause and get to experience assignments in different countries and unique settings.

Forman: What do you want the public to know about government work and federal employees?

Reece: There are many misconceptions about government employees. I want the public to know that, overall, government employees are hardworking, dedicated and motivated. Especially with COVID-19, a lot of us work from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. We don’t quit.  There are important issues out there that need to be addressed.

Faruqui: Federal employees deal with round-the-clock problems and often work after hours without overtime pay. But it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice for us because we love what we do. In public service, our fellow citizens are the customers, so the highest compliment would be if the public appreciates our work and trusts that we are doing our best.

Read the team’s Service to America Medals profile for more on this important criminal investigation and visit Citi’s website for more on their anti-money laundering work. For more on this year’s Sammies virtual awards program, read Inspiring Stories from this year’s Service to America Medals.

Join the conversation with #Sammies2020 and follow the Partnership on Twitter @publicservice.

This post is part of a new blog series featuring in-depth interviews with our 2020 Service to America Medal finalists. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity by Kiki Marlam, an intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.