Spies Like…Us?

An alleged Russian spy, arrested last week by the FBI, attended the CFO Rising Conference in March, where he networked aggressively and focused on sessions about risk management.

Among the 346 people who attended the CFO Rising Conference in Orlando in March this year was a prodigious networker named Donald Howard Heathfield, a man the FBI now says was a Russian spy operating under a false identity.

Heathfield and a woman who claims to be his wife, known as Tracey Lee Ann Foley, were 2 of 10 people arrested last week and accused of being unregistered foreign agents in a Russian spy ring operating in the United States. According to the FBI, the long-term goal of each of the individuals was “to become sufficiently ‘Americanized’ such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles.”

Russian spies

Heathfield — or “Defendant #4,” as he is identified in a June 25 FBI affidavit seeking his arrest — registered for the CFO Rising Conference as CEO of Future Map, a company he operated out of his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The FBI affidavit cites an expense report that appears to refer to Future Map as a “business (cover)” on which Heathfield spent $4,900. The expense report was allegedly sent to Heathfield’s Moscow handlers using steganography, a method of hiding text messages in images on publicly available Websites. The same report cites $1,125 spent on a “trip to meeting.” It is not clear from the affidavit what period of time is covered by that expense report, or which meeting it refers to. CFO’s subsequent reporting suggests that Heathfield attended at least two conferences with financial themes, and his LinkedIn profile shows he also was a subscriber to a forum for health-care CFOs.

The arrest of Heathfield and his alleged conspirators has generated a mix of surprise, concern, and some ridicule in the press — the last because of the clandestine, Cold War techniques that the suspects allegedly used to communicate with Moscow, including public bag exchanges, invisible writing, and encrypted Morse code messages. “What was wrong with flying to Europe to meet your control officer once a month?” asked former CIA field officer Robert Baer in a Time.com column. Likewise, networking at business conferences, no matter how enthusiastically done, seemed to many observers a slow and unlikely way to gain access to information that would be of use to a Russian intelligence agency.

Many of the attendees and sponsors contacted by CFO remember meeting Heathfield at CFO Rising, describing him as an aggressive networker, but also as someone whose actual objective seemed hard to pin down.

“I met him early on in the conference, and he was very persistent in trying to reengage,” recalls John Kahn, CFO of a private-equity-backed portfolio company. “I didn’t reengage with him. He just seemed slightly strange.” Kahn still has Heathfield’s business card, which folds out to twice the size of a normal business card and contains a somewhat inscrutable description of the company’s mission: “Future Map gives leaders a synthetic ‘big picture’ of anticipated future. Future Map helps building proactive collaborative leadership cultures.”

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