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Curious Choice of Auditor for Democratic Database Flap

(CN) - In selecting its auditor to study the security breach exploited by a campaign staffer for Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic National Committee showed it has insouciance to spare.

Described as a corporate CIA, the Manhattan-based private intelligence firm Kroll counts big names like Goldman Sachs and Chevron among former clients.

Bill Clinton's inclusion on this list might raise eyebrows this election, amid claims that the DNC is playing favorites with the frontrunner in the White House race.

The investigation stems from a software bug that brought down a DNC firewall for 45 minutes on Dec. 16, giving the Sanders campaign a peek at Hillary Clinton's outreach strategies in key battleground states.

DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz retaliated by suspending the Sanders campaign's access a crucial database vendor, NGP VAN, effectively grinding outreach efforts to a halt at the heart of the primary season.

Jeff Weaver, a campaign manager for Sanders, publicly accused the Democratic party of "sabotage" the next day, and Bernie 2016 slapped the DNC with a federal complaint Friday afternoon.

As the candidates made their way to New Hampshire on Saturday for the final Democratic presidential debate of 2015, they and the party seemed eager to put the squabble to bed. The DNC restored the Sanders campaign's access to the database early in the morning, and the candidates extended olive branches to each other within the first few minutes of the debate.

"This is not the type of campaign that we run," Sanders said.

Clinton meanwhile offered a send-up to the Vermont senator's line about her "damn emails," saying the database issue is of little consequence to voters.

What neither candidate mentioned, however, was that the federal court battle wages on.

On Monday, the Sanders campaign pushed for the audit to probe all glitches in the NGP VAN database, and called upon Clinton to support that extension.

"As the Clinton campaign knows, this is not the first firewall failure at the DNC," Sanders' campaign spokesman Michael Briggs said at the time. "There was at least one other failure two months ago that we discovered and reported. Failures like these open the possibility for data access by any campaign."

Clinton's press secretary Brian Fallon then told MSNBC that only the Sanders team required investigation.

"Unequivocally, our campaign has never laid eyes on any data relating to the Sanders campaign," Fallon told the network. "We've never done that to them, and they need to stop spreading this innuendo to try to make it seem like everybody's doing this."

An anonymous Democrat leaked Kroll's appointment to Politico on Friday, but the highly secretive firm remained tight-lipped when reached for comment on the investigation.

"As a matter of policy, we do not comment on the existence or nonexistence of a client engagement," Kroll spokeswoman Adele Brown said in an email.

NBC reported that the Clinton campaign was "pleased" with the choice. But Sanders, having spent much of the primary season stumping against Kroll's elite clientele, has not yet disclosed any view on the firm.

Profiled in a New Yorker article titled "The Secret Keeper," Kroll became the prototype for what would become a booming industry of corporate intelligence firms when it launched in 1972.

Kroll largely catered to the private sector in 1992 when it turned down a contract from Bill Clinton, whose first presidential campaign, the New Yorker noted, was then "floundering in the glare of the Gennifer Flowers affair."

Flowers had alleged a 12-year affair with the then-governor, and Kroll understood the model's story meant that "there might be others ... who would need to be investigated," the New Yorker reported.

Later that year, Kroll did accept another assignment to check out whether the governor's mansion had been bugged, according to the article.

Before founding Kroll, its namesake Jules Kroll cut his teeth at Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, a company that ranked as Clinton's second-largest lifetime donor.

"Den of Thieves," a book about insider-trading scandals of the 1980s by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Stewart, reported that Kroll detectives were spotted "shadowing" a cooperating witness against a Goldman Sachs investor to intimidate him from testifying.

Kroll also kept tabs on counsel for attorneys representing Ecuadorean rainforest residents who won a $9.5 billion environmental verdict against Chevron.

As recounted by Chevron's most visible opponent representing the Ecuadoreans, attorney Steven Donziger, Kroll's chair Dan Karson testified in a deposition that Chevron paid the firm $15 million to deploy 150 employees to fight that verdict.

Donziger is now angling for a Second Circuit reversal after a federal judge found in March 2014 that the judgment against Chevron in Ecuador was procured by fraud.

The Atlantic reported on another mission Kroll undertook for Chevron in the 2010 article "A Spy in the Jungle." The article was written by a journalist who turned down a job from Kroll to learn the identities of doctors studying oil cancers and their interview subjects.

In the Chevron litigation, an Ecuadorean judge named Alberto Guerra testified about taking Kroll up on a similar offer. Guerra, who earned at least $360,000 from Chevron as part of its self-styled witness-protection program, later testified in New York against Donziger.

The Manhattan judge who ruled in Chevron's favor two years ago credited large portions of Guerra's testimony and multiple State Department human rights reports released during Clinton's tenure.

Though Chevron is a massive political contributor on both sides of the aisle, the company poured at least $10 million into State Department projects while Clinton headed the office.

Earlier this month, Chevron had to perform damage control when Guerra recently changed details of his original testimony.

Echoing a comparison made by the New York Times and Sydney Morning Herald, Donziger called Kroll "a sort of private CIA for the powerful."

Though hardly a dispassionate voice on the matter, Donziger said he would not classify Kroll as an "objective investigations service."

The firm takes on clients who "have a very specific agenda that requires particular results to be produced regardless of the actual facts," Donziger said in an email.

Neither the candidates nor the Democratic Party would respond to email and phone inquiries about the court case or Kroll's probe.

The DNC has not released any information about the expected length and scope of the audit, or who was responsible for selecting Kroll to lead it.

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