MANHATTAN (CN) – Federal prosecutors charged a senior Financial Crimes Enforcement Network official with leaking thousands of sensitive files connected to the Russia investigation for a yearlong series of articles in BuzzFeed.
Published as recently as this past Monday, the series cited suspicious activity reports detailing transactions by President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, disgraced lobbyist Richard Gates, and accused spy Maria Butina. Another article in the series reported that former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak received a $120,000 check.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who was picked by Trump to replace Preet Bharara’s deputy Joon Kim, denounced BuzzFeed’s accused source.
“Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior-level FinCEN employee, betrayed her position of trust by repeatedly disclosing highly sensitive information contained in Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) to an individual not authorized to receive them,” Berman said in a statement Wednesday annnouncing the charges.
Five years before Berman took his post, his predecessor Bharara brought a case against the shadowy real estate firm at the center of BuzzFeed’s most recent report: Prevezon, which recently settled charges of committing a $230 million tax fraud uncovered by late Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
On Monday, BuzzFeed tied the New York branch of TD Bank to a suspicious transaction with a Prevezon subsidiary, earning accolades from Magnitsky’s most persistent advocate Bill Browder.
“Fantastic new investigative report by @BuzzFeed on how TD Bank in New York got involved with Russian oligarchs who were accused by the DOJ of laundering the money in NY from the Magnitsky case,” Browder recently tweeted.
Unsealed Wednesday, the 18-page complaint against Edwards does not identify the reporter said to have used Edwards as a source, but it identifies the headlines and publications of a series of a dozen articles published over the past year in BuzzFeed. Reporter Jason Leopold had a byline in each of the stories.
After obtaining permission to use a pen register on Edwards’ cellphone, FBI agent Emily Eckstut wrote in the complaint, the government learned that the FinCEN official exchanged hundreds of encrypted communications with the reporter.
Prosecutors say that Edwards, who was arrested Wednesday, told federal agents that she is a whistleblower seeking to preserve the documents.
“During the interview described herein, Edwards told the interviewing agents, in sum and substance, that she is a ‘whistleblower’ who provided the SARS to Reporter-1 for ‘record keeping,'” the complaint states in a footnote.
Edwards previously filed an “unrelated” whistleblower complaint and told congressional staffers about it, prosecutors say.
Prosecutors did not accuse Edwards of being the source for the New Yorker’s article on the suspicious financial transactions of President Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen.
In that article, reporter Ronan Farrow said his source also claimed to be protecting the SARs from going missing.
“According to FinCEN, disclosing a SAR is a federal offense, carrying penalties including fines of up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and imprisonment for up to five years,” the article noted. “The official who released the suspicious-activity reports was aware of the risks but said fears that the missing reports might be suppressed compelled the disclosure.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation criticized prosecutors for filing charges against Edwards.
“In less than two years in office, the Trump administration has now charged at least five sources of journalists with felonies for allegedly giving information to the press—a record breaking pace,” the group’s executive director Trevor Timm said in a statement. “These prosecutions are a clear threat not just to whistleblowers who inform the public, but to the press freedom rights of journalists everywhere.”
BuzzFeed declined to comment.
FinCEN is a bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department focused on money laundering, terrorism financing and related crimes.