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Tip and teamwork deliver scoop on seizure of oligarch’s yacht

A Civil Guard stands by the yacht called Tango in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Monday April 4, 2022. U.S. federal agents and Spain's Civil Guard are searching the yacht owned by a Russian oligarch. The yacht is among the assets linked to Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire and close ally with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who heads the Moscow-based Renova Group, a conglomerate encompassing metals, mining, tech and other assets, according to U.S. Treasury Department documents. All of Vekselberg's assets in the U.S. are frozen and U.S. companies are forbidden from doing business with him and his entities. (AP Photo/Francisco Ubilla)


Lead Department of Justice reporter Michael Balsamo, Madrid chief correspondent Aritz Parra and freelance multiformat journalist Francisco Ubilla put the AP so far ahead on the seizure of a Russian oligarch’s yacht in Spain, competitors didn’t catch up until hours later — and they still had to use AP visuals to accompany their stories.

As part of AP’s broader coverage of the war in Ukraine, Balsamo had been examining what the federal government was doing to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Well-sourced Balsamo got his break when he was tipped that U.S. authorities were working with their counterparts in Spain to seize a $120 million yacht — almost as long as a football field — belonging to a billionaire friend of Putin.

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Spain’s Civil Guard accompanies U.S. FBI agents and a U.S.Homeland Security agent on the yacht Tango in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, April 4, 2022. – AP Photo / Francisco Ubilla

Balsamo immediately alerted colleagues in Europe and eventually Spain. Parra joined in the hunt and confirmed more information on when the seizure would take place and which yacht was being targeted. That put Ubilla on the scene reporting and making images as authorities boarded the ship,giving AP a front row seat to the first U.S. seizure of an oligarch’s yacht since the U.S. assembled a task force known as REPO — short for Russian Elites,Proxies and Oligarchs — as an effort to enforce sanctions after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The all-formats piece was one of AP’s most-read stories of the day; it was hours before competitors could report the basics using the federal government’s press announcement. Even then they still had to rely on Ubilla’s images,which played widely in broadcast, print and online.

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