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Archive for February 20th, 2018

Russia Probe: Attorney Pleads Guilty to Lying to FBI about Trump Campaign Aide

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, via FBI.

By Steve Neavling

A prominent, Russian-connected attorney pleaded guilty Tuesday to misleading the FBI about his work with President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, marking the third conviction so far in the special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Alex Van der Zwaan is accused of lying to federal investigators about communications he had with Rick Gates, a longtime business partner of Manafort and a former Trump campaign aide.

Prosecutors say Van der Zwaan made false statements about his work for a law firm accused of whitewashing abuses by the pro-Russian, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is accused of an $18 million money laundering scheme involving Manafort.

The scheme is part of the criminal case against Manafort and Gates, who were both indicted in October on 12 counts involving money laundering, conspiracy against the U.S. and tax fraud. They pleaded not guilty.

Van der Zwaan, the son-in-law of Russian oligarch German Khan, worked in London for the prominent New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

After pleading guilty, he admitted to lying to investigators about past communications with Gates and someone identified as “Personal A.”

The case centered around Van der Zwaan’s work for Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice, which hired him to put together a report about the trial of Tymoshenko.

BuzzFeed News reported Monday that Tymoshenko was the focus of an FBI investigation as part of a failed operation to tackle international kleptocracy in 2014 and 2015. During the probe, investigators identified $40 million in “suspicious transactions” to and from Manafort’s companies. 

But the under-resourced task force dropped the investigation and never charged Manafort or Tymoshenko, according to current and former law enforcement officials who worked on the case.

Gates is expected to plead guilty as early as this week to money laundering as part of a deal with prosecutors to testify against Manafort, who continues to maintain his innocence.

Manafort Faces Renewed Scrutiny over $40M in ‘Suspicious Transactions’

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

By Steve Neavling

President Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort is facing renewed scrutiny after special counsel Robert Mueller resurrected a shelved federal investigation that previously identified $40 million in “suspicious transactions” to and from Manafort’s companies, according to BuzzFeed News. 

The discovery indicates the scope of Manafort’s alleged crimes are much broader than initially when he was indicted in October 2017 for an alleged $18 million money laundering scheme involving pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych.

The FBI uncovered the transactions primarily in 2014 and 2015 as part of an investigation to tackle international kleptocracy, and agents interviewed Manafort at his attorney’s office in Washington D.C. At the time, Manafort denied wrongdoing and said he knew nothing of Yanukovych’s government reportedly stealing money, according to internal FBI emails. Although Manafort pledged to disclose documents to the bureau, he never did.

The probe fizzled, according to two former federal law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation, because FBI leaders determined Manafort’s crimes weren’t significant enough to warrant charges.

“We had him in 2014,” one of the former officials said. “In hindsight, we could have nailed him then.”

The officials said a lack of resources made it too difficult to build a complex case against the former Ukrainian president, so the investigation petered out.

In the meantime, banks continued to alert federal officials of suspicious transactions involving Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty to a slew of charges related to his work with eastern European countries. The charges include money laundering, conspiracy against the U.S. and tax fraud. 

Mueller reopened the investigation in September and used some of the findings to help indict Manafort. Mueller is considering leveling new charges against Manafort as investigators comb through the suspicious transactions.

His business partner, Rick Gates, plans to plead guilty to fraud charges in exchange for a reduced sentence and his testimony against Manafort.

FBI Faces Mounting Pressure over Failure to Act on Tip about School Shooter

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaking at a previous congressional committee hearing.

By Steve Neavling

The FBI’s admission that it failed to properly follow up on a tip about the Florida school shooter has drawn mounting criticism, including calls for the bureau’s boss to step down.

Among those demanding the resignation of FBI Director Christopher Wray is Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who on Monday also called on the bureau to release “all details” on why it never acted on an anonymous caller’s tip on Jan. 5 that Nikolas Cruz “had a desire to kill people” and had “the potential” of “conducting a school shooting.”

“Last week, our state and nation was shocked to learn of the FBI’s inexcusable inaction after receiving a tip informing them of Cruz’s desire to carry out a school shooting,” Scott said in a statement. “The FBI’s failure to initiate an investigation raises many questions, and the victims’ families deserve answers now.”

Scott last week called for Wray to step down after acknowledging that FBI “protocols were not followed” following the tip.

“Under established protocols, the information provided by the caller should have been assessed as a potential threat to life,” the FBI said in a statement Friday.

The bureau also is facing heat from some prominent Republicans in the U.S. House.

Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., sent a letter Friday to Wray indicating the FBI failed to act on “warning signs that (Cruz) was capable of such monstrous actions,” Homeland Security Today wrote

“The Committees are seeking to understand these protocols and why they were not followed in this case,” Gowdy and Goodlatte wrote. “Accordingly, the Committees request the FBI brief the Committees on the tip, protocols, and FBI’s actions before and after the incident as soon as possible, but no later than March 2.”

President Trump, who has waged a campaign to undermine confidence in the FBI amid the special counsel investigation into Russian interference, suggested over the weekend that the bureau missed “many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter” because of the resources spent on the Robert Mueller probe.

“This is not acceptable,” Trump tweeted Saturday. “They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!”

Trump’s response drew heavy criticism, including from current and former FBI officials who pointed out that the bureau employs more than 30,000 people and is capable of conducting numerous investigations at one time.

Some prominent Democrats, including Rep. Adam Schiff, said Scott should not be forced to resign.

“I don’t think the director should resign, no, but there clearly is a serious problem here when you have threat information of that detail and it didn’t get triggered in terms of an investigation and action,” Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“There are only so many cases where you do have good input where people see something and say something, and to not follow up is inexcusable,” Schiff continued. “There needs to be a full internal investigation by the Justice Department and t

Special Counsel Investigating Trump’s Son-in-Law Kushner over Business Dealings

President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

By Steve Neavling

The special counsel team investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election is now scrutinizing the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner, over his business dealings during the presidential transition.

The news, first reported by CNN, indicates that Robert Mueller’s investigation has expanded from Kushner’s contacts with Russia to his interactions with Chinese and Qatari investors. 

Over the past two months, investigators have been probing Kushner’s solicitation of financial support for 666 Fifth Ave., a debt-ridden Manhattan property that Kushner Companies purchased in 2007.

In January 2017, Kushner divested from the property, which is more than $1.4 billion in debt.

It wasn’t immediately clear what Mueller’s team was looking for. Neither Kushner nor his company has received requests for interviews, people familiar with the matter told CNN.

In a statement to congressional investigators, Kushner said he was the lead contact for foreign governments and spoke to more than 50 businesses from more than 15 countries during the presidential transition.

Russian-Linked Bots Suspected of Sowing Divisions Immediately After Florida School Shooting

Cyber crime expert, via FBI.

By Steve Neavling

Suspected Russian-linked Twitter accounts pounced on the gun control debate just an hour after last week’s school shooting in Florida.

Many of the social media accounts, the New York Times reports, had been the target of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference during the presidential election in 2016. 

“This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this,” said Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, a company that tracks online disinformation campaigns. “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”

The news comes after last week’s indictments of 13 Russians accused of waging an unprecedented propaganda campaign to help Donald Trump get elected.

To experts on disinformation campaigns, it’s no surprise that Russian agents quickly seized the opportunity to sow division among Americans. The bots are designed to pit Americans against each other on divisive issues such as gun control, race and immigration.

The bots are “going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration,” said Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”

Top intelligence officials warned Congress earlier this month that Russian agents, emboldened by their success during the presidential campaign, are planning a similar disinformation campaign during the mid-term elections this year.

The automated Twitter accounts pounced on the hashtag #Parklandshooting, injecting the issue of metal illness in the gun control debate. Some of the accounts also claimed the gunman searched for Arabic phrases on Google before the massacre.