The United States Department of Justice has opened an investigation into state-sponsored doping by dozens of Russia’s top athletes, two people familiar with the case said. The inquiry escalates what has been a roiling sports controversy into a federal criminal case involving foreign officials.
The United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York is scrutinizing Russian government officials, athletes, coaches, antidoping authorities and anyone who might have benefited unfairly from a doping regime, according to the people, who did not have authorization to speak about the inquiry publicly. Prosecutors are believed to be pursuing conspiracy and fraud charges.
Federal courts have allowed prosecutors to bring cases against foreigners living abroad if there is some connection to the United States. That connection can be limited, such as the use of an American bank.
A report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency in November accused Russia of systematic state-sponsored doping. The chemist identified as a linchpin in that operation — Grigory Rodchenkov, the longtime head of Russia’s antidoping laboratory — told The New York Times this month that he worked for years, at the direction of the Russian government, to help the country’s athletes use banned, performance-enhancing substances in global competition and go undetected.
Dr. Rodchenkov is among the people under scrutiny by the United States government, said one of the two people with direct knowledge of the case.
Russian officials have responded to the accusations with both defiance and contrition. While often emphatically dismissing the claims as a Western conspiracy intended to discredit Russia, they have sometimes struck a more conciliatory tone, perhaps seeking to win the favor of sports officials in control of their country’s ability to compete in the coming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The Russian Sports Ministry acknowledged doping problems in a statement last week after Dr. Rodchenkov’s claims were published in The Times. It did not specify what those problems were. Then, writing in The Sunday Times, a British newspaper, the Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, said that Russian officials, coaches and athletes had made “serious mistakes,” but he stopped short of outlining them or admitting to any state involvement.
In their inquiry, United States prosecutors are expected to scrutinize anyone who might have facilitated unclean competition in the United States or used the United States banking system to conduct a doping program.
Elite Russian athletes have competed in several major sporting events in the United States, like the Boston Marathon and international bobsled and skeleton championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The inquiry, which originated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would have to clear several hurdles before charges could be filed. Even if prosecutors are able to establish jurisdiction, securing the cooperation of Russian authorities in pursuing evidence and witnesses — and in ultimately delivering any charged defendants to the United States — would be all but impossible.
It is rare for the United States government to take on sports doping cases. In February 2012, the United States attorney in Los Angeles, André Birotte Jr., dropped a two-year criminal investigation into Lance Armstrong and his Postal Service cycling team that had explored whether Mr. Armstrong and others defrauded sponsors by operating a doping program.
The United States Anti-Doping Agency, not a government entity, pursued the case. Mr. Armstrong was ultimately stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and barred him from cycling for life for what Usada called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
But prosecutors for the Eastern District in Brooklyn have taken on high-profile sports corruption cases before. For several years, the office has been investigating corruption within FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. That case, announced last May, has so far resulted in charges against 40 soccer officials and business executives, as well as two corporations. More than a third have pleaded guilty.
Highly international in scope, the FIFA case has implicated people of two dozen nationalities, and it has required the cooperation of various foreign authorities — especially the Swiss — in making arrests, ruling on extradition requests and sharing information about bank transactions.
While the Eastern District’s FIFA investigation and Russian doping investigation are independent inquiries, there is an overlap between the two matters. Prosecutors from the business and securities fraud section and the organized crime division are involved in both, and certain public figures have overlapping ties to Russian sports and global soccer.
Mr. Mutko, Russia’s minister of sport, is a member of FIFA’s ruling council, a position he has held since 2009. He was appointed to his current role in Russian government by President Vladimir V. Putin in 2008.
In his account to The Times, Dr. Rodchenkov, who oversaw Russia’s antidoping lab in Moscow for a decade, said he often took direct orders from Mr. Mutko’s deputy, Yuri Nagornykh, especially leading up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. In Sochi, Dr. Rodchenkov said, he staged an elaborate dark-of-night operation to destroy Russian athletes’ tainted urine samples on orders from the government.
In a news conference last Friday, Mr. Nagornykh disputed Dr. Rodchenkov’s claims. “There’s no doping program in Russian sport,” he said. “There was none and will be none.”
In the wake of the report last fall, which cast shadows on not just the Moscow laboratory but also Russia’s antidoping agency, Dr. Rodchenkov said that Mr. Mutko summoned him to the sports ministry’s headquarters and requested his resignation. Dr. Rodchenkov fled to the United States, fearing for his safety, he said.
Bradley D. Simon, a criminal defense lawyer of Simon and Partners in New York, confirmed that he was representing Dr. Rodchenkov but declined to comment on the Justice Department investigation.
Currently living in Los Angeles, Dr. Rodchenkov, 57, has said he has no intention of returning to Russia. “I have no choice,” he said in a recent interview. “I am between two flames.”