WASHINGTON (CN) – Former Senate intelligence Staffer James Wolfe pleaded guilty Monday to one count of lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters during a classified leak investigation.
His guilty plea came as a surprise – Monday’s hearing appeared on the docket as a status conference not a plea hearing, and Wolfe had previously pleaded not guilty to three counts of making false statements to federal agents during a June 13 hearing.
Attorneys for Wolfe, 57, had previously promised to fight the charges that their client lied when asked about his contact with four unnamed reporters.
Wolfe had repeatedly denied being in contact with the journalists during interviews with federal agents.
According to U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu, the government had proof that on two occasions in October 2017, Wolfe gave unclassified but non-public information to a reporter about a witness subpoenaed to testify before the Senate intelligence committee.
According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, that information later appeared in a published news story.
“Wolfe also admitted making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with three additional reporters, including one of the authors of the aforementioned article,” the statement said.
As part of the plea deal, the government agreed to drop two of the three pending counts.
Though the reporters are not named in the original indictment, The New York Times has since acknowledged that one of them is Ali Watkins, who reportedly had a three-year romantic relationship with Wolfe and previously covered the Senate intelligence committee for Politico and Buzzfeed News.
As part of its leak probe, the Justice Department swept up several years worth of Watkins’ email and phone records.
Wolfe’s attorneys had previously asked the court to bar President Donald Trump from making extrajudicial statements about the case out of concern that he had mischaracterized the charges against their client.
The president said on June 7 that the Justice Department had “caught a leaker” and falsely implied that Wolfe had leaked classified information.
U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is presiding over the case, denied the motion.
Though he was tasked with managing classified material provided to the Senate intelligence committee, Wolfe was not charged with leaking classified information.
Wolfe’s attorneys – Preston Burton, Benjamin Klubes and Lauren Randell with Buckley Sander – had repeatedly stressed that ever since their client was indicted, and reiterated that in a statement after Monday’s hearing.
“We have seen numerous distortions on social and other media of the facts of this matter,” the statement said. “So we emphasize again today that Jim was never charged with having compromised classified information, nor is such a charge part of today’s plea.”
According to the attorneys, Wolfe agree to plead guilty to allow him to resolve the matter sooner rather than later, and to enable his family to move forward with their lives.
The attorneys said they would have more to say about Wolfe’s 29-year stint as the director for security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence when he is sentenced on Dec. 20.
Wolfe has been free pending trial since he was indicted, and will remain free until his sentencing. He faces a maximum sentence of five years and a fine of up to $250,000.