New details emerge about Novi resident accused of spying in Russia

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Federal court records portray Paul Whelan, the Novi resident detained in Russia, as a computer and security expert whose work brought him into close contact with members of the U.S. intelligence community, federal agents and foreign embassies.

The new details emerged Wednesday about Whelan, 48, an ex-police officer, former Marine and security official who Russian officials accuse of being a spy. 

Marine Corps. Staff Sgt. Paul N. Whelan stands in front of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on a two-week trip during his deployment to Iraq. Whalen, now retired and living in Novi, was arrested in Russia during a different trip on allegations that he is a spy. His brother says he is innocent and was there for a wedding.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. was allowed Wednesday to visit Whelan, an official with Auburn Hills-based BorgWarner — the first American contact with Whelan since his arrest Friday. The arrest is likely to weaken already strained U.S.-Russian relations, an expert told The Detroit News. 

More: Novi man held for spying meets with US ambassador

 Political science professor Judith Kullberg of Eastern Michigan University said parts of Whelan's background could arouse Russian suspicions.

“He does have some of the kinds of experience one might associate with someone in the intelligence community,” said Kullberg, whose research has focused on Russian Federation politics. “He seems to have some Russian language fluency and appears to have traveled to Russia several times.”

Whelan's testimony in connection with a federal employment lawsuit six years ago sheds additional light on his work history and expertise.

Whelan was questioned in connection with a complaint filed by a former Kelly Services employee. At the time, Whelan was senior manager of global security and investigations for the Troy-based staffing company.

During a deposition that lasted more than five hours, he portrayed himself as a worldly man, a computer and security expert skilled at dealing with diplomats, federal agents and the U.S. intelligence community.

According to the deposition, Whelan served in the U.S. Marines from 1990 through 2001, received a master’s degree in business administration and worked as a Chelsea police officer and Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputy. 

In 2001, he joined Kelly Services as an IT project manager before rising within the company to manage investigations and oversee security at the company’s Troy campus.

“Anything, really, that impacts Kelly Services as a global company, whether it is in the United States or the countries that I manage,” Whelan testified, according to a deposition transcript obtained by The News.

Whelan said he routinely worked with federal agencies, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, domestically and abroad.

“We come in contact with federal agencies and officers all the time,” Whelan testified.

As an example, Whelan said his Kelly Services duties put him on contact with an FBI division embedded in U.S. embassies overseas. The FBI operates 63 such offices, called legal attachés or legats, and has personnel work with law enforcement, intelligence, and security services.

One legal attaché office is in Moscow, where Whelan was visiting before being arrested by Russian officials.

Russia’s domestic security agency, the Federal Security Service, said Monday it had arrested him on spying charges. The FSB said it had caught him "during an espionage operation,” but did not elaborate.

Spying charges carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years in Russia.

David Whelan has professed his brother's innocence, saying Paul Whelan was in Russia for a wedding.

"We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” David Whelan said in a statement posted on Twitter. “His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”

A State Department spokesman said Wednesday that Russian officials allowed Huntsman to visit Whelan in the Lefortovo Detention Facility in Moscow.

"Ambassador Huntsman expressed his support for Mr. Whelan and offered the embassy’s assistance," the spokesman said. "Ambassador Huntsman subsequently spoke by telephone with Mr. Whelan’s family. Due to privacy considerations for Mr. Whelan and his family, we have nothing further at this time.”

At least two Michigan elected officials Wednesday publicly expressed concern about the arrest.

"It is very concerning when a foreign adversary like Russia feels empowered to detain an American citizen," U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, tweeted. "The Trump Administration must act swiftly and with transparency to make sure Russia is adhering to international law."

Peters spokesman Zade Alsawah declined to elaborate beyond the tweet, citing office policy of not discussing constituent casework.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, also expressed concern.

"I am alarmed by Russia's detainment of one of my constituents, Paul Whelan," Stevens said in a written statement. "I have been in touch with the Whelan family and I am committed to working with them to bring Mr. Whelan home.

"Paul served our country as a Marine and law enforcement officer and we must ensure that Russia continues to meet its obligations under the Vienna Convention to provide U.S. officials access to Mr. Whelan. I am working with the State Department and will remain vigilant until Paul returns safely to his family in Michigan." 

Whalen’s detention is likely to discourage American tourism and investment in Russia, Kullberg said.

“Relations are as bad as they’ve been in more than 30 years,” she said Wednesday. "This dampens enthusiasm for traveling to Russia, makes it more difficult to operate in Russia and will certainly deter investment by American firms in Russia.”

She noted Whelan’s detention came weeks after alleged Russian agent Maria Butina pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.

“This is a pretty typical pattern and the Russians are making it clear to the United States government that any arrests of Russian citizens in the U.S. charging them with espionage will result in similar charges against U.S. citizens,” Kullberg said.

She said Whelan has an account on the Russian version of Facebook.

“It’s not like he somehow randomly ended up in Russia and was picked up,” Kullberg said.

According to what to appears to be Paul Whelan’s profile on the Russian social media platform VKontakte, he posted “God save President Trump” — flanked by flag emojis — on Inauguration Day in 2017. A 2010 post referred to then-President Barack Obama as a “moron.”

Another photo showed Whelan wearing a T-shirt of the Moscow soccer club Spartak. In March 2014, around the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Whelan suggested that “Putin can have Alaska, as long as he takes Sarah Palin, too!” And a photo posted in August shows Whelan attending a security conference organized by the U.S. State Department.

Whelan has worked for BorgWarner since January 2017 and is responsible for overseeing security at facilities around the world, company spokeswoman Kathy Graham said Wednesday.

BorgWarner doesn't have any operations in Russia, although it has customers there, Graham said. She added she didn't think Whelan had traveled to Russia on the company's behalf since he started working there.

"He wasn't there on any business trip that I'm aware of," Graham said. "We haven't gone through every travel record, but as far as I know he has not been there for us. His main role was overseeing the security of our facilities, the equipment in our facilities and the people."

Whelan served in the Marine Corps Reserves from 1994 to 2008, and was discharged after he was convicted of larceny in a special court-martial in January 2008.

The Marine Corps did not immediately provide details of the court-martial conviction beyond saying it was based on “several charges related to larceny.”

During his time in the Marines, Whelan was deployed twice to Iraq, in 2004 and 2006.

He attained the rank of staff sergeant in December 2004, serving as an administrative clerk and administrative chief. His last place of duty was at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California.

According to a 2007 story posted on the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing page of the Marine Corps website, Whelan was part of “The Rest and Recuperation Leave Program,” which authorized 15 days of leave to service members on yearlong deployments to Iraq.

The military paid for the travel and most service members chose to return home, but others could travel abroad. Whelan spent his two weeks in Russia, saying in the interview that the leave program “gives those of us who are single an opportunity to travel throughout the world wherever we want to go and experience the diversity of culture.”

Whelan also was a cop in Keego Harbor, where he was a 1999 Mothers Against Drunk Driving Michigan Life Saver Award recipient. Keego Harbor police chief John Fitzgerald said Wednesday he could not release his personnel information.

It's unclear when Whelan was an officer for Chelsea police and Washtenaw County; city and county officials did not return phone calls Wednesday.  

Nobody answered the doorbell Wednesday at Whelan's third-floor unit in the Wellington Drive Apartment complex in Novi. A stack of business cards from various news agencies was on his doorstop, many with a “Please Call” request scrawled across them.

The front of the apartment complex faces a middle school across Pontiac Trail, the rear, a duck pond. A Novi police car was parked nearby, presumably keeping an eye on the address. 

None of Whelan’s immediate neighbors responded to knocks at their doors and the complex’s business office manager referred all queries about Whelan to a corporate number, which did not return a call.

Novi District Court records reveal he was involved in two landlord-tenant issues filed in November and December 2007 for nonpayment of rent, with each totaling a judgment of  $770 on behalf of his landlord, the Portsmouth Apartments. Clerks said the actual files, more than 10 years old, have been destroyed, which they said is routine for old cases.

Whelan also faced a 2011 claim filed against him by a Virginia debt collector for $1,210.35 in goods or services purchased in March 2011. That order was dismissed in January 2012, presumably settled out of court. The debt collector declined to discuss the case Wednesday with The News.

Novi Police Chief David Molloy said he was not aware of any interaction between his officers and Whelan.

“We have not been contacted by any local or federal agency regarding him,” Molloy said Wednesday. 

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Twitter: @robertsnellnews

Associated Press contributed.