Michael Zottoli: Smooth Russian Spy or Incompetent Buffoon?


Recent media coverage of Michael Zottoli, one of several Russian spies recently arrested, demonstrates particularly well the juxtaposition between insidious and absurd that describes the entire conspiracy.

Depending on which media you read, Zottoli, who originally lived in Seattle and then moved to Virginia, can either look like a polished international spook or an incompetent buffoon straight out of the movies.

The 007 version of Zottoli

The LA Times paints Zottoli as a charming, successful, jet setting investment banker, cruising around in luxury automobiles.  One gets the impression that if Zottoli weren’t nabbed by the FBI, he might have become a rich and powerful mogul, who could have used his considerable influence for Mother Russia.

Zottoli studied advanced finance at the University of Washington in Seattle before moving to Virginia.  A professor recalls him as, “not overbearing…understated, smiling face, engaged, interested…it was a pleasant thing to be around this person.” The same professor also spoke of Zottoli’s intelligence and potential, saying “Because he was in the top part of my class, I knew that he would have good opportunities in terms of corporate finance money management.”

John Evans, manager of the luxury apartment where Zottoli lived, recalls that Zottoli drove off every morning “in a late model blue BMW to a job at an investment bank.”  Zottoli seemed flush with cash from his lucrative job and cash infusions from his foreign keepers.   “They paid their rent each month in advance with a cashier’s check,” the apartment manager said.

The “Spies like us” version of Zottoli

The Seattle Times, on the other hand, paints Zottoli as broke and frustrated, making whoever chose him as a spy in Russia look comically incompetent.  And he apparently wasn’t fooling anybody, because the FBI was raiding his apartment in 2006 to find notebooks full of secret codes.

Unlike the Los Angeles Times, which reported Zottoli working as an “investment banker,” the Seattle Times says he was a “midlevel accountant at a small Bellevue telecom company.”  Coworkers did not remember him as the charming student his professor recalls, with one coworker saying he was “grumpy and distractible.”  It also says, “Zottoli seemed henpecked, constantly taking cellphone calls at work. ‘My wife,’ he would explain in a thick accent, then walk outside for privacy.”

This was no smooth, deep-under-cover spy.  His coworkers recall having to endure his “emotional” and “adamant” political rants about US policy.  He wasn’t the wealthy investment banker portrayed in the LA Times, either.   In fact, Zottoli was so broke that he actually had to borrow $2,000 from his boss, and then he told her he was taking a trip to South Africa, leaving her to think he was blowing the money.

What the heck were these people doing?

Court documents reveal these spies were part of the “illegals program,” whose mission included recruiting more agents.  Could “recruiting more agents” be a euphemism for using blackmail or bribery? If so, these spies could have gotten other people to do their bidding, which could be a very serious matter, considering they “made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others,” according to the New York Times.

Of they could simply be really bad spies enjoying the American life at Moscow’s expense.