Rivers of Prosecution

Spy trials seemed to be the special province of the federal court in Los Angeles during past decades.

When I first started reporting for a legal paper here, the espionage prosecution of Christopher Boyce was under way, later to be retold in a bestseller “The Falcon and The Snowman” by Robert Lindsey.

When I moved on to covering the federal court in Los Angeles for the Boston Globe, an aerospace engineer named William Bell was being tried for providing documents from Hughes Aircraft to Polish agent Marian Zacharski.

That trial was followed by the prosecution of FBI agent Richard Miller with testimony that featured trappings of a John LeCarre novel combined with elements of farce.

It revealed the extraordinarily small sums for which an American would sell out his country, and featured a bumbling pair of local Russian émigrés named Svetlana and Nikolai.

Then there was a prosecution over the sale of krytrons, nuclear bomb triggers, to Israel by an American named Richard Smyth.  The prosecution stopped when he was spirited out of the country.

He was later found living on an island in Spain, extradited to the U.S. where in 2002 he plead guilty and was granted parole almost immediately.

The federal court in Washington D.C. is now reminiscent of federal court in Los Angeles in its heyday, with central billing given by the press to related prosecutions coming out of the Russia probe.

In the most recent events at the end of last week, Rick Gates plead guilty to lying to FBI agents.

His plea and cooperation with the government are expected to turn against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, accused of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent.

As the pleas and documents mount up, that investigation is looking like a combination of two streams of prosecution, those that involve spying for Russia and those that involve financial fraud.

But divining the true nature of the investigation is a bit like Lewis and Clark trying to decide which river leads to the Missouri headwaters. Which stream of prosecution will lead to the source of the Russian scheme.

While the press coverage has largely focused on influence peddling, I have heard a strong refrain from non-journalists who believe the true course of the prosecution will lie in the money laundering tributary.

Based on the history of spy trials in Los Angeles, the facts stacking up in the ongoing Russia affair suggest it is different. Those old espionage cases involved discrete sales of information.

The Russia affair involves a widespread campaign to manipulate the last presidential election through social media in a wild west of information created by the new internet publishers, primarily Facebook. But the ongoing prosecution seems to now be following the trail of money transfers.

And that would easily lead back to the real estate gambler’s eternal need for outside money, and from there a connection back to the Russian motherland and their intelligence services. In the America press, there has been extensive reporting over the past year on investments in New York real estate by Russian and Chinese moguls.

In that scene, it is easy to imagine that Russian agents of influence would sense an opportunity in the Trump run for the presidency, and zero in on the bumbling set of amateurs and family members who traveled with him.

For agents skilled in human frailty, the president’s men presented an appetizing buffet of characters. But the tale still to unfold will most likely come from an exploration of the rivers of money flowing out of Russia and whether they reached those characters.

 

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