Law enforcement, regulators and financial authorities are increasingly relying on whistleblowers to obtain important information from insiders. However, government employees should be careful when passing on information to the media. The US Attorney General’s Office considers the disclosure of confidential government information to the media to be a criminal act. The former US Treasury employee Natalie Edwards has pleaded guilty to conspiracy for leaking confidential banking reports associated with members of the Trump campaign
The Leak Case
On Jan 13, 2020, US citizen and Virginia resident Natalie Edwards, 41, entered the plea in Manhattan federal court, where U.S. District Judge Gregory H. Woods set sentencing for June 9, 2020. The conspiracy charge carries a potential penalty of up to five years in prison. Edwards, however, entered into a plea deal with the US prosecutors that recommended a potential prison sentence of zero to six months. Edwards admitted to spilling secrets to a Buzzfeed reporter about the Mueller investigation and probes into Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Russian agent Maria Butina.
Edwards was a senior adviser at Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN“). Allegedly, her crime began in October 2017 and continued for a year, with Edwards sending a BuzzFeed News reporter numerous Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”). Banks must file SARs with the Treasury Department when they uncover suspicious transactions such as money-laundering. Federal law strictly limited their disclosure.
The SARs related to wire transfers made by Paul Manafort and other figures in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation, including campaign official Richard Gates, Maria Butina and the Russian Embassy.
In a law enforcement action Edwards was caught with a government-issued USB flash drive containing not only thousands of SARs, but also “highly sensitive material relating to Russia, Iran, and the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” prosecutors said. She transmitted the SARs to the reporter by “taking photographs of them and texting the photographs” using an encrypted application.
She had originally seen herself as a whistleblower. But the US prosecutors have apparently given her convincing arguments that she has acted criminally. The US prosecutors have also accused her of her behavior being politically motivated – i.e. against Trump and his presidential campaign.
Not trusting Government
“I agreed to disclose a SAR knowing I was not allowed under the law to disclose it,” she told the Court during her emotional plea. She said: ‘You know, if I can’t trust government officials to handle this, I think I can trust the media to handle this and to bring this to the attention of the American people,'” her lawyer Marc Agnifilo explained.
“She was motivated by things that she believed were important. She brought issues that she thought were important, compelling issues to the press so that the press could bring them to the people. She didn’t trust that the government was doing the right thing with these issues. And I think that gives a daughter every reason to be proud of her mother,” her lawyer summarized the situation (see Politico report).
It’s definitely not easy to be a whistleblower if you are working with an authority or a state agency.