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Mueller may have a conflict — and it leads directly to a Russian oligarch


Special counsel Robert Mueller has withstood relentless political attacks, many distorting his record of distinguished government service. But there’s one episode even Mueller’s former law enforcement comrades — and independent ethicists — acknowledge raises legitimate legal issues and a possible conflict of interest in his overseeing the Russia election probe.

In 2009, when Mueller ran the FBI, the bureau asked Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to spend millions of his own dollars funding an FBI-supervised operation to rescue a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, captured in Iran while working for the CIA in 2007.

Yes, that’s the same Deripaska who has surfaced in Mueller’s current investigation and who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration.

The Levinson mission is confirmed by more than a dozen participants inside and outside the FBI, including Deripaska, his lawyer, the Levinson family and a retired agent who supervised the case. Mueller was kept apprised of the operation, officials told me.

Some aspects of Deripaska’s help were chronicled in a 2016 book by reporter Barry Meier, but sources provide extensive new information about his role. They said FBI agents courted Deripaska in 2009 in a series of secret hotel meetings in Paris; Vienna; Budapest, Hungary, and Washington. Agents persuaded the aluminum industry magnate to underwrite the mission. The Russian billionaire insisted the operation neither involve nor harm his homeland.

“We knew he was paying for his team helping us, and that probably ran into the millions,” a U.S. official involved in the operation confirmed.

One agent who helped court Deripaska was Andrew McCabe, the recently fired FBI deputy director who played a seminal role starting the Trump-Russia case, multiple sources confirmed.

Deripaska’s lawyer said the Russian ultimately spent $25 million assembling a private search and rescue team that worked with Iranian contacts under the FBI’s watchful eye. Photos and videos indicating Levinson was alive were uncovered.

Then in fall 2010, the operation secured an offer to free Levinson. The deal was scuttled, however, when the State Department become uncomfortable with Iran’s terms, according to Deripaska’s lawyer and the Levinson family.

FBI officials confirmed State hampered their efforts.

“We tried to turn over every stone we could to rescue Bob, but every time we started to get close, the State Department seemed to always get in the way,” said Robyn Gritz, the retired agent who supervised the Levinson case in 2009, when Deripaska first cooperated, but who left for another position in 2010 before the Iranian offer arrived. “I kept Director Mueller and Deputy Director [John] Pistole informed of the various efforts and operations, and they offered to intervene with State, if necessary.”

FBI officials ended the operation in 2011, concerned that Deripaska’s Iranian contacts couldn’t deliver with all the U.S. infighting. Levinson was never found; his whereabouts remain a mystery, 11 years after he disappeared.

“Deripaska’s efforts came very close to success,” said David McGee, a former federal prosecutor who represents Levinson’s family. “We were told at one point that the terms of Levinson’s release had been agreed to by Iran and the U.S. and included a statement by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointing a finger away from Iran. At the last minute, Secretary Clinton decided not to make the agreed-on statement.”

The State Department declined comment, and a spokesman for Clinton did not offer comment. Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, declined to answer questions. As did McCabe.

The FBI had three reasons for choosing Deripaska for a mission worthy of a spy novel.

  • First, his aluminum empire had business in Iran.
  • Second, the FBI wanted a foreigner to fund the operation because spending money in Iran might violate U.S. sanctions and other laws.
  • Third, agents knew Deripaska had been banished since 2006 from the United States by State over reports he had ties to organized crime and other nefarious activities. He denies the allegations, and nothing was ever proven in court.like i said

The FBI rewarded Deripaska for his help. In fall 2009, according to U.S. entry records, Deripaska visited Washington on a rare law enforcement parole visa. And since 2011, he has been granted entry at least eight times on a diplomatic passport, even though he doesn’t work for the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Former FBI officials confirm they arranged the access.

Deripaska said in a statement through Adam Waldman, his American lawyer, that FBI agents told him State’s reasons for blocking his U.S. visa were “merely a pretext.”

“The FBI said they had undertaken a careful background check, and if there was any validity to the State Department smears, they would not have reached out to me for assistance,” the Russian said.

Then, over the past two years, evidence emerged tying him to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the first defendant charged by Mueller’s Russia probe with money laundering and illegal lobbying. Deripaska once hired Manafort as a political adviser and invested money with him in a business venture that went bad. Deripaska sued Manafort, alleging he stole money.

Mueller’s indictment of Manafort makes no mention of Deripaska, even though prosecutors have evidence that Manafort contemplated inviting his old Russian client for a 2016 Trump campaign briefing. Deripaska said he never got the invite and investigators have found no evidence it occurred. There’s no public evidence Deripaska had anything to do with election meddling.

Deripaska also appears to be one of the first Russians the FBI asked for help when it began investigating the now-infamous Fusion GPS “Steele Dossier.” Waldman, his American lawyer until the sanctions hit, gave me a detailed account, some of which U.S. officials confirm separately.

Two months before Trump was elected president, Deripaska was in New York as part of Russia’s United Nations delegation when three FBI agents awakened him in his home; at least one agent had worked with Deripaska on the aborted effort to rescue Levinson. During an hour-long visit, the agents posited a theory that Trump’s campaign was secretly colluding with Russia to hijack the U.S. election.

“Deripaska laughed but realized, despite the joviality, that they were serious,” the lawyer said. “So he told them in his informed opinion the idea they were proposing was false. ‘You are trying to create something out of nothing,’ he told them.” The agents left though the FBI sought more information in 2017 from the Russian, sources tell me. Waldman declined to say if Deripaska has been in contact with the FBI since Sept, 2016.

So why care about some banished Russian oligarch’s account now?

Two reasons.

  • First, as the FBI prepared to get authority to surveil figures on Trump’s campaign team, did it disclose to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that one of its past Russian sources waived them off the notion of Trump-Russia collusion? 
  • Second, the U.S. government in April imposed sanctions on Deripaska, one of several prominent Russians targeted to punish Vladimir Putin — using the same sort of allegations that State used from 2006 to 2009. Yet, between those two episodes, Deripaska seemed good enough for the FBI to ask him to fund that multimillion-dollar rescue mission. And to seek his help on a sensitive political investigation. And to allow him into the country eight times.

I was alerted to Deripaska’s past FBI relationship by U.S. officials who wondered whether the Russian’s conspicuous absence from Mueller’s indictments might be related to his FBI work.

They aren’t the only ones.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told me he believes Mueller has a conflict of interest because his FBI previously accepted financial help from a Russian that is, at the very least, a witness in the current probe.

“The real question becomes whether it was proper to leave [Deripaska] out of the Manafort indictment, and whether that omission was to avoid the kind of transparency that is really required by the law,” Dershowitz said.

Melanie Sloan, a former Clinton Justice Department lawyer and longtime ethics watchdog, told me a “far more significant issue” is whether the earlier FBI operation was even legal: “It’s possible the bureau’s arrangement with Mr. Deripaska violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the government from accepting voluntary services.”  

George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley agreed: “If the operation with Deripaska contravened federal law, this figure could be viewed as a potential embarrassment for Mueller. The question is whether he could implicate Mueller in an impropriety.”

Now that sources have unmasked the Deripaska story, time will tell whether the courts, Justice, Congress or a defendant formally questions if Mueller is conflicted. In the meantime, the episode highlights an oft-forgotten truism: The cat-and-mouse maneuvers between Moscow and Washington are often portrayed in black-and-white terms. But the truth is, the relationship is enveloped in many shades of gray.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill’s executive vice president for video.

[Editor’s note: This post was updated at 8:10 p.m. on May 14, 2018.]

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Federal Judge Could Be A Nightmare For Special Counsel Mueller


Reported by Richard Pollock | Reporter | 11:59 PM 05/06/2018

FILE PHOTO: FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo | Judge Ellis III VS Robert Mueller

FILE PHOTO: FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo | Judge Ellis III VS Robert Mueller  

Federal Judge T.S. Ellis III, a Reagan appointee, could be the ultimate nightmare for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who may lose his legal case against Paul Manafort, according to an extraordinary May 4 exchange in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia. A dismissal could be a major wrecking ball to Mueller’s overall case in his Russian collusion case against President Donald Trump.

Amid Friday’s legal event, Ellis was best known for invoking an NFL term to dismiss Mueller’s legal posture, saying “C’mon man!” as he challenged the special counsel’s attempt to drag an unrelated bank fraud case back in 2005 to indict Manafort. Those charges are well beyond Mueller’s original mandate to investigate alleged collusion with Russia in 2016 and had to be dismissed, the judge said, according to the hearing transcript.

“If I look at the indictment, none of that information has anything to do with links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Donald Trump,” he lectured Michael Dreebeen, Mueller’s lawyer in the court room. “So I don’t see what relation this indictment has with anything the special prosecutor is authorized to investigate.” 

The federal judge also was enraged that Mueller redacted 75 percent of an August 2017 order from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which further outlined the special counsel’s mandate, according to the transcript. Ellis has handled numerous espionage cases and enjoys among the highest level government clearances, the judge reminded the government’s lawyer.

The judge slammed the special counsel, saying he understood his real intention was “to exert leverage on a defendant so that the defendant will turn and provide information on what is really the focus of the special prosecutor,” namely President Trump.

Dreeben replied, their “investigatory scope” permitted them to include wrongs committed a decade before Trump declared his candidacy for president.

Ellis shot back: “My question to you was, how does bank fraud and these other things that go back to 2005, 2007, how does that have anything to do with links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Trump?”

The original May 2017 order setting up the special counsel’s office by Rosenstein permitted them to go after crimes beyond Russian collusion, Dreeben replied. “We are not limited in our prosecution authority to crimes that would fit within the precise description that was issued in this public order,” he told Ellis.

Ellis cut to the chase and told the special counsel their intention was really to get Manafort to “sing” to get Trump. “I’ve been here a long time. The vernacular is to sing,” he said.

Ellis admonished the special counsel, saying he was seeking “unfettered power”something the founding fathers fought against. “What we don’t want in this country is we don’t want anyone with unfettered power,” Ellis stated. “So it’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me that the special prosecutor has unlimited powers to do anything he or she wants,” the judge said.

Dreeben said Mueller is following both the May and August 2017 orders from Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller. But Ellis shot back that the order he was given had 75 percent of the August memo was redacted.

“I have that right here, and I’m glad you raised it because 75 percent of it is blocked out, redacted. Why don’t I have a full copy it,” Ellis asked.

“The only paragraphs that are to Mr. Manafort are the ones that are pertinent are the ones contained in this record,” Dreeben replied.

“Well, let me use a phrase that I’m fond of that I used to use with my children,” the judge said, dripping with sarcasm. “I can’t use it with my wife, but I’ll be the judge of whether it relates to the others.”

Dreeben would consult with the intelligence community to see if the rest of the classified memo could be shared with the judge, he said.

“Yes, of course, you may do that,” Judge Ellis replied. “If any part of it is classified, it won’t surprise you to know that a district judge is fully cleared. In fact, I have several espionage trials underway,” he told the Mueller attorney.

Following that exchange, Ellis didn’t mince words with Dreeben as he laid into Mueller’s attorney. “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” he said. “You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment or whatever. That’s what you’re really interested in.”

In the end, Ellis asked Dreeben if he had anything to add.

“No thank you, Your Honor,” he said.

“Good choice on your part,” an angry Ellis replied. “Thank you for your arguments,” he told Dreeben. “They were entertaining.”

The court resumes in two weeks.

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Tony Podesta Lobbied For Russia’s ‘Uranium One’ And Did Not File As A Foreign Agent


Reported by Richard Pollock | Reporter | 7:57 PM 11/05/2017

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 19: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee June 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Mueller confirmed that the FBI uses drones for domestic surveillance during the hearing on FBI oversight. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Tony Podesta’s lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, represented the Russian-owned company Uranium One during former President Barack Obama’s administration and did not register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, The Daily Caller News Foundation has determined.

Podesta collected lobbying fees of $180,000 from Uranium One, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, that discloses lobbying documents filed with Congress. The uranium company states on its web site it is a “wholly owned subsidiary” of RUSANO, the Russian State Corporation for Nuclear Energy.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller already is scrutinizing Podesta and his firm for allegedly failing to register as a lobbyist for the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, a Ukrainian government entity.  His role there is tied up with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort who was indicted on 12 counts on Oct. 30, including the failure to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

A cabinet-led federal committee that included former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, approved the sale of Uranium One to RUSANO in 2010, that permitted Russia to acquire twenty percent of America’s uranium reserves.

The sale of Uranium One to Russia today is the subject of at least three separate congressional committee investigations trying to determine if Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation received large financial gifts from Russians and from Uranium One’s owner and CEO. The committees are trying to determine if the gifts paved the way for the sale.

The committees also are looking into new reports that an FBI informant obtained damaging criminal activity information on the Russian side of the sale which was never passed on to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CIFIUS), the cabinet-level committee that had to approve sales of U.S. companies and strategic assets to foreign countries.

The committees investigating Uranium One are the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Podesta Group lobbied on behalf of Uranium One for part of 2012 and in 2014 and 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Podesta Group was not listed as a lobbyist for Uranium One during its sale to ROSATOM in 2010.

The Podesta Group did not file under FARA during any of the years when it lobbied both Congress and the executive branch, according to the Justice Department website.

Reporting requirements under FARA demand far more rigorous public disclosure requirements — including contract information — than reports filed under congressional lobbying disclosure rules.

“The Podesta Group takes legal compliance seriously, and it complied with the law here,” a Podesta Group company spokesman told TheDCNF.

GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of Calif., who chairs the House intelligence committee, told TheDCNF he is concerned about the Podesta’s lobbying activities for Uranium One and its decision not to file under FARA.

“This would be yet another unusual and concerning development around the Uranium One issue that Congress will be looking into,” Nunes said in a statement.

The question of whether companies representing foreign government entities should file under FARA got a jolt on Oct. 30 when Mueller issued an indictment of Manafort and Richard Gates, Manafort’s long-time business associate. The Special Counsel’s action raised FARA compliance to a new level with his charge that Manafort and Gates should have registered under FARA.

“From in and about and between 2008 and 2014, both dates being approximate and inclusive, within the District of Columbia and elsewhere, the defendants Paul J. Manafort, Jr., and Richard W. Gates III knowingly and willfully, without registering with the Attorney General as required by law, acted as agents of a foreign principal, to wit, the Government of Ukraine,” the indictment stated.

GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — another committee looking into the Uranium One sale — hailed Mueller’s decision to go after FARA violators.

“It’s good to see the Justice Department taking seriously its responsibility to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act,” Grassley said in a statement issued after the Manafort indictment. “I’ve been raising concerns about lackluster enforcement of this foreign influence disclosure law for years now, regardless of administration or political party.”

“The dirty little secret is that lots of people across the political spectrum in Washington have skirted their FARA registration obligations for years with little to no accountability,” he added.

The Podesta Group is referred to throughout the Manafort indictment as “Company B,” according to NBC News, citing three unnamed sources with knowledge of the investigation.

Mueller is “sending a signal” about getting tough on FARA enforcement, Scott MacGriff, who left the Justice Department last November after eight years as a fraud attorney and now serves the law firm of Dickinson Wright, told TheDCNF.

“It may be that Mueller is trying to send a signal that it’s no longer going to be observed in the breach and FARA filings can no longer be an afterthought,” MacGriff said in an interview with TheDCNF. “It’s a signal and a reminder that companies have an affirmative obligation to take a closer look at their responsibilities under FARA.”

Former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova agreed. “The FARA filings are very, very important as witnessed by the Manafort indictment. And they’re viewed that way now by the government apparently with some rigor,” he told TheDCNF.

The Special Counsel has subpoenaed Podesta to testify and has requested records from the Podesta Group, according to The New York Times. The Special Counsel’s office would not provide to TheDCNF deadlines facing Podesta and his company.

Feeling pressure from the Special Counsel’s deepening probe, however, on Oct 30 Podesta took the dramatic step to resign from the lobbying giant he co-founded with his brother John Podesta in 1988. His brother served as Hillary Clinton’s national 2016 campaign chairman, served as chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s White House and served as “special counselor” to Obama.

In the Manafort case, the Podesta Group did not file under FARA after years of lobbying for the European Center which supported Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president. Yanukovych fled to Russia after he was deposed by its parliament as unruly street demonstrations rocked the country.

Only in April of this year did the Podesta Group retroactively register as a foreign agent for the European Center. Manafort belatedly registered as a foreign agent in June as well. The retroactive registration did not help Manafort and he was indicted by the Special Counsel.

Uranium One touched Bill and Hillary Clinton along with their long-time friend Frank Giustra who was the owner of Uranium One. Bill received $500,000 for a speaking engagement in Moscow only three weeks after ROSATOM announced its bid for Uranium One. Bill and Giustra co-founded the Clinton-Giustra Enterprise Partnership. The Clinton Foundation’s website reports that Giustra donated more than $25 million. Peter Schweizer, author of “Clinton Cash” found nine Uranium One investors donated $145 million to the Clinton Foundation.

Uranium One burst back into national news on Oct. 25 in the wake of reports from The Hill and Circa that an FBI informant possessed corruption information concerning the Russian parties that was withheld from Congress, as well as from the CIFIUS board.

Despite the FBI’s critical information, in 2010 the Obama administration — including Clinton — approved the sale to ROSATOM. The sale effectively handed over 20 percent of America’s uranium reserves to Moscow.

As Secretary of State, Clinton voted to approve the sale of Uranium One before CIFIUS. So did Attorney General Eric Holder whose FBI  held the information of criminal activity.

The Podesta Group defended its decision not to file under FARA regarding Uranium One, saying they were exempt from FARA under a Justice Department rule in 28 CFR 5.304 paragraph C.

The Podesta Group “complied with the law here by following a Department of Justice rule that is specifically intended to cover firms that represent any business ‘owned in whole or in part by a foreign government,’” a Podesta spokesman told TheDCNF.

The paragraph in question exempts firms from FARA registration that engage in political activities on behalf of a foreign corporation — “even if owned in whole or in part by a foreign government” — as long as the corporation is not directed by a foreign government or foreign political party, and as long as the activities do not “directly promote” the public or political interests of a foreign government or foreign political party.

Dan Pickard, an attorney at Wiley Rein who handles FARA issues, told TheDCNF he believes the Podesta Group should have registered under FARA.

“It is important to note that exemptions are not applicable where the foreign principal is either a government of a foreign country or a foreign political party,” Pickard told TheDCNF in an interview.

DiGenova agrees. “If you are representing a foreign government, person or entity, you have to register under FARA,” he said, adding: “The failure to file a FARA registration would require some scrutiny.”

MacGriff says Section 22 of the U.S. Code provides guidance to companies about whether or not they should register under FARA.

“An Agent of a foreign principal is defined by statute at 22 U.S.C. section 611(c) to include any person whose activities are directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign principal,” he told TheDCNF.

“Where there is uncertainty as to whether a foreign government directly or indirectly ‘supervised, directed, controlled, financed or subsidized in whole or in major part’ the underlying activities, prudence dictates making a FARA filing in an overabundance of caution,” MacGriff said.

ROSATOM’s chairman is Boris Gryzlov, who is a senior Kremlin insider. He served as Speaker of the Duma from 2003 to 2011. He also was a member of the Russian Federation Security Council, according to Bloomberg News.

ROSATOM is “often compared with a government ministry, it has a clout in Moscow matched only by oil and gas giants Rosneft and Gazprom,” the Financial Times reported.

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