The Ukraine Connection

In January, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, met with a most unusual peace envoy: a former mobster and government informant named Felix Sater. They were joined by a third man, Andrii Artemenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament with alleged ties to organized crime figures. Mr. Artemenko and Mr. Sater wanted the new president to consider a “peace deal” that would cede Crimea to Russia in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine. Mr. Cohen was interested. Mr. Sater gave Mr. Cohen the proposal in a sealed envelope and Mr. Cohen dropped it off at the office of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn while visiting the White House to meet with President Trump. The government of Ukraine learned about the deal the way the rest of the world did, by reading about it in the New York Times. It furiously denounced the move as a “gross violation” of Ukrainian law by forces “covertly representing Russian interests.”

No U.S. laws were broken in the backchannel approach to the White House and Mr. Artemenko, who has modeled his political persona on Mr. Trump, denies any connection to organized crime. But the episode underscores some of the dangers for the Trump White House lurking in the Russia connection case. Following the money may take Special Counsel Robert Mueller to some very shady places.

Throughout his life, Mr. Trump has not shied away from contacts with organized crime figures. He crossed paths with them in the construction business, in the casino business, in deals with Mr. Sater and his colleagues, and through his longtime personal attorney Roy Cohn, whose client list included many of New York’s leading mobsters. Maybe Mr. Trump never did business with the mob. Maybe he just got a kick out of gangsters. We don’t know. But the problem now for President Trump is a special counsel who may want to know, and who is empowered to find out.

Read More

Trump v. Mueller

“The President went on to say that if there were some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.”

–Former FBI Director James Comey to the Senate Intelligence Committee

 

“The Special Counsel is authorized to conduct the investigation…including: any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).”

–Justice Department letter appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel

 

The president has claimed a measure of relief—okay, “total and complete vindication”—after James Comey confirmed in Senate testimony that Mr. Trump himself is not under investigation in the Russia connection case. According to Mr. Comey’s notes of his meetings with the president, Mr. Trump insists he hasn’t done anything wrong but if any of his “satellite associates” did do something wrong, it would be good to find that out. The important thing, President Trump repeats, is that he himself is not a target of the probe.

The conventional wisdom out of Washington is that the president is a political neophyte stumbling from one crisis to another. But when it comes to legal battles, Mr. Trump is an experienced combatant. Trump biographers have noted that the future president was mentored by attorney Roy Cohn, an avatar of legal evil whose life’s work included hounding homosexuals and suspected communists, representing mobsters and financial titans, and protecting Trump family interests. Cohn beat back repeated federal attempts to jail him and died from an AIDS-related illness in 1986, but he lives on in the president’s brain. If you’re gaming Trump v. Mueller, think Roy Cohn, not the hapless New York corporate lawyers currently being shoved out front as cannon fodder.

The Roy Cohn method is to fight until the last dog dies and that’s precisely what the president wants. For Mr. Trump knows that a war with the special counsel is at hand. Taking a page from the Clintons’ Whitewater playbook, Trump surrogates have started blasting Mr. Mueller as Democrat-linked and unfit for office. Mr. Trump has served notice that anyone can be thrown under the bus—it would be “good to find out” if any of his associates did anything wrong, he tells the then-FBI chief—and Trump friends note that even Mr. Mueller is not safe from being fired. None of this is an accident.

As for Mr. Mueller, like Mr. Trump, it’s not in his character to back away from a fight. Mr. Mueller enlisted in the Marine Corps and commanded a rifle platoon in the Vietnam War, receiving the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. A Republican, he served in high Justice Department criminal prosecution posts and took over the FBI one week before 9-11. He’s a serious, straight-arrow prosecutor facing the biggest case of his lifetime. He’ll go where the evidence takes him and is assembling a formidable team to get him there.

Read More

EB-5, VEB Updates, Bad Juju For Jared

A snarky, disparaging—and let’s be honest, wildly entertaining—color commentary on the Trump White House in the New York Times last week noted that the president lately has been taking a dim view of his son-in-law and senior aide, Jared Kushner. Mr. Kushner’s star is falling. The president made “several snarky, disparaging comments about Mr. Kushner’s family” and the “Trump-Kushner relationship…is showing unmistakable signs of strain,” the Times reported. It noted that Mr. Kushner’s influence diminished as he came under scrutiny in the Russia connection case, but “the most serious point of contention between the president and his son-in-law” was the Kushner family’s push in China to fund a New Jersey luxury tower project through the controversial EB-5 visa program.

We’ve been following EB-5 and outlined the Kushner China hustle last month. Foreigners—mostly wealthy Chinese—pay $500,000 for an EB-5 visa, which gives them a green card and a path to U.S. citizenship. The program was established by Congress to funnel low-interest loans, well below commercial lending standards, to development projects in economically distressed areas. But the money—more than $20 billion—mostly has gone to finance lavish developments in flashy locations like Manhattan, Miami and Beverly Hills. The real estate industry loves the program because it provides cheap financing.

In the May 24 edition of City & State, the Brooklyn-based journalist Norman Oder provided new details about the Kushner’s New Jersey luxury apartment projects. Mr. Oder had been covering EB-5 since 2010 at his groundbreaking Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report. Using New Jersey sunshine laws, Mr. Oder revealed previously unreported “creative mapmaking” of census tracts critical to two Kushner projects in New Jersey that use EB-5 funds.

Read More

The Kushner Connection

 

The Russian connection story took another twist Friday with a bombshell Washington Post story that Jared Kushner sought a secret communications channel with the Kremlin. In a Trump Tower meeting with the Russian ambassador in early December, Mr. Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior aide, proposed using Russian diplomatic facilities for secure communications, the Post reported. Michael Flynn—soon to be President Trump’s first national security adviser—attended the meeting.

Some might call this an overture to espionage. Need we add that if it had been government employee Jared Jones, he would have been picked up in the dead of night, stripped of his security clearance and grilled by the FBI? But this Jared, of course, is the husband of the president’s favorite child. So we sail again into uncharted waters.

No one knows where this incredible story is heading. Are we in a Pink Panther movie or Whittaker Chambers territory? Is it a comedy of errors—a tale of a dumb-but-not-criminal actions in the heat of a historic presidential race—or a tragedy of spycraft and treason? Is the president a victim of an organized “deep state” campaign of leaks and smears to do him in? Or did he collude with agents of the Kremlin to undermine American democracy and then cover it up? The director of the FBI (Comey) is out and a special counsel (Mueller) is in. And now, with the Kushner connection, the probe moves toward the president’s innermost circle.

The administration spins Mr. Kushner’s overture to Moscow as no big deal. “It’s both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told ABC. Uh, sure. Mr. Mueller is certain to be taking a look at the meeting within a broader context. And that’s where Mr. Kushner could be headed for trouble.

Read More

Trump & The Hydraulic Power Of Money

Many years ago, at the prompting of Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Editor Robert Bartley, I visited Harry Albright, seeking insights into the corrupt, Saudi-dominated Bank of Credit & Commerce International. The former New York state banking superintendent had just been appointed trustee to oversee the sale of First American Bankshares, a BCCI-connected bank holding company. We met at his downtown office, the North Tower of the World Trade Center framed in his window on a sparkling sunny day.

“Think of the hydraulic power of money,” Albright cheerfully told me, spreading his hands, conjuring rivers of cash. BCCI was a multi-billion-dollar international criminal enterprise. It spread money far and wide, enriching insiders with bogus loans, purchasing the friendship of American politicians, buying up banks, extending letters of credit to arms dealers, tax evaders and racketeers, opening secret accounts for dictators, terrorists, drug dealers and spies, and providing a financial conduit for the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. With front men from Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabian interests dominated the bank through major stakeholders such as Khalid bin Mahfouz, Ghaith Pharaon, and Kamal Adham, the head of the Saudi intelligence service.

Albright was giving me a lesson in influence peddling at the highest level of the global game. “All that money is out there in different pools,” he said, “it’s liquid, it flows from place to place. But as in hydraulics, you can exert tremendous pressure by drawing it through a narrow pipeline when you need to—by focusing the intense hydraulic force of that money on a particular person or institution.”

BCCI showed the sinister side of Saudi influence. With its secret purchase of First American—a prominent Washington bank—BCCI bought entry into the top tier of the U.S. power system. It installed a Democratic Party icon, Clark Clifford, as First American’s chairman. Loans and favors flowed to Democrats and Republicans alike. When BCCI started to unravel, the hydraulic force of all that money caused official Washington to drag its feet on investigating. It took crusading Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and the Journal’s Bob Bartley to prod the feds, and the world, into action.

I thought of Harry Albright and BCCI while following the kerfuffle over the pledge by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to donate $100 million to Ivanka Trump’s proposed Women Entrepreneurs Fund, to be administered by the World Bank. News flashed around the world about “Ivanka’s Fund” and the Trumpian hypocrisy in a pay-to-play move so similar to the Clinton Foundation, swiftly followed by a Twitter outburst decrying “fake news”—because, after all, the enterprise would be run by the World Bank, not the Trumps.

Or maybe not. It’s worth noting that there is no Women Entrepreneurs Fund. The World Bank website makes no mention of it. It’s simply an idea Ms. Trump raised with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently. Mr. Kim steers a ship riven by controversy, even crisis. So any port in a storm and who knows whether Ms. Trump will feel compelled to “rescue” the fund.

The Saudis don’t care. The notion that the deeply patriarchal state has developed a sudden love for women’s entrepreneurship is ludicrous. This is a classic Saudi influence play aimed at America’s ruling family. We’ve seen this movie before. It’s a little exercise in the hydraulic power of money. If you’re an oil-rich monarchy sitting on top of a restive region, you never know when you’re going to need to call in a favor. The best way to ensure favorable treatment is to spread around a lot of money.

Read More

Following The Trump Money

Amid the sound and fury over the firing of FBI Director James Comey and classified conversations in the Oval Office, a significant development in the Russian connection investigations received only fleeting attention. But it’s important. Investigators are getting serious about following the Trump money.

Senator Lindsey Graham signaled the new development at the end of the May 8 subcommittee hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was quickly overshadowed by President Trump’s firing of Mr. Comey the next day.

Senator Graham asked former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: “During your investigation of all things Russia, did you ever find a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia gave you concern?”

Mr. Clapper paused, then artfully dodged: “Not in the course of the preparation of the intelligence community assessment” of Russian meddling in the election.

Senator Graham was not deterred. “Since?” And, “At all, anytime?”

“I can’t comment on that because that impacts an investigation,” Mr. Clapper said.

Four days later, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, would be sharing “financial records with an expanding Senate probe into possible ties between Russia and President Donald Trump and his associates.” The FBI is already making use of FinCEN data and analysis.

FinCEN is basically a gigantic vacuum machine sucking up massive amounts of global financial data. It tracks suspicious banking activity and other financial transactions for signs of criminal activity, fraud, tax evasion, terrorism and money laundering. The Patriot Act put FinCEN on steroids, elevating it as a national security and law-enforcement resource.

“The basic concept underlying FinCEN’s core activities is ‘follow the money,’” the agency notes on its website. “The primary motive of criminals is financial gain, and they leave financial trails as they try to launder the proceeds of crimes or attempt to spend their ill-gotten profits.”

The Journal report noted that Senate investigators “came across information that led them to inquire about Mr. Trump’s business ties,” marking “an escalation of the committee’s probe.” According to the Journal, investigators plan to look at a broad matrix of companies involved with Mr. Trump, possibly including “businesses owned or associated with Mr. Trump’s family members, including Kushner Cos., where his son-in-law and now senior White House aide, Jared Kushner, was previously CEO.”

Read More

Golden Visas & The Promised Land

The scandal-ridden EB-5 program jumped back into the news this week with a Washington Post story about the Kushner company hawking Golden Visas in Beijing. Jared Kushner of course is Ivanka’s husband and a top adviser to the president. He has recused from EB-5 issues and divested from much of the family business, but that hasn’t fooled the Chinese. A culture that’s been around for four thousand years knows a few things about emperors and princelings.

We warned about EB-5 trouble in December and again in January. Critics say the visa program is a magnet for all sorts of shady deals. Senator Charles Grassley has denounced it on the floor of the Senate, saying the program may be “facilitating terrorist travel, economic espionage, money laundering and investment fraud.” A Government Accountability Office report said international funds for EB-5 visas could come through the “drug trade, human trafficking, or other criminal activities.”

Under EB-5, foreigners—these days, mostly rich Chinese—pay $500,000 for the so-called “Golden Visa,” gaining a green card and a path to U.S. citizenship. The program has brought in around $20 billion and possibly a lot more—it’s hard to get a firm figure out of the loosely supervised initiatives. It is beloved by the American real estate industry because it provides cheap money to finance development projects, including lavish spreads in Miami, Manhattan Brooklyn, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills. Never mind that the program is supposed to provide funds for the creation of jobs in economically distressed areas.

The Trump Organization is connected to EB-5 through a $40 million play by a luxury hotel in Austin. Jared Kushner raised $50 million in EB-5 funds for a luxury tower in New Jersey. It’s the New Jersey project that thrust EB-5 back into the spotlight this week.

Read More

Trump & Transparency

On the day Donald Trump was elected president, Judicial Watch signaled its view of the challenges ahead. “President-elect Trump should commit to a transparency revolution,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a congratulatory statement. We pledged to continue our independent investigations and lawsuits to hold politicians of both parties accountable. We have continued to pursue litigation against the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton, bringing new information to light, because the rule of law did not end with the election. And we’ve been pressing President Trump to be more forthcoming on his tax returns, the White House logs and Russia-related documents.

It’s clear that transparency in the Trump era will proceed along multiple tracks. One of the most consequential sunshine experiments in recent history, the Digital Accountability & Transparency Act, is slated to kick into a higher gear next week. May 9 is the deadline for government agencies to provide standardized data for a searchable data base, USAspending.gov.

The DATA Act proposition is truly revolutionary: citizens should be able to closely track how the government is spending their money.

All federal agencies that make contracts, grants and loans are required to participate in the DATA Act. The May 9 launch is sure to be bumpy and several agencies have already informed project managers that they won’t meet the deadline. But the vast information project appears to be on track.

The implications of so much new financial information online and easily searchable are enormous. It’s “follow the money” on steroids, opening up new terrain for policy makers, academics, journalists and entrepreneurs. A more transparent money flow could pave the way for better policies and systems, improved economic performance and business models, and shine a brighter light on waste, fraud and abuse.

Read More

Remember Cardillo

On an April morning forty-five years ago, NYPD Patrolman Phillip Cardillo was gunned down in a Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem. He died six days later. New York’s political and police leadership abandoned Cardillo within hours of the shooting. No one was ever convicted of the crime. The case was a sensation back in the day. Does it matter anymore?

It still matters to the Cardillo family, who have endured decades of controversy over the murder. It still matters to the thin blue line in New York, where “Remember Cardillo” became a watchword for a generation of cops, evoking the treason of the brass and the gnawing sense that a cloud of lies and cover-up had descended over the case.

Many details about the death of Cardillo remain hidden in the files of the NYPD and the FBI, but we do know a few things.

We know there was a cover-up.

A special prosecutor assigned to examine the Cardillo case concluded there was an “orchestrated effort” by members of the NYPD “to impede” the probe. The lead detective in the case wrote a scathing memoir, “Circle of Six,” accusing members of the city’s political and police establishment of a “purposeful negligence of duty” in the Cardillo affair. A Judicial Watch investigation unearthed a secret NYPD report containing evidence that was withheld from New York detectives and prosecutors.

Judicial Watch’s investigation also uncovered FBI surveillance reports linked to the main suspect in the murder, a Nation of Islam member known as Lewis 17X Dupree. And we published details of a covert FBI program targeting black radicals believed to be behind the assassination of police officers. Some evidence suggests that the secret, high-stakes Operation Newkill manhunt may have intersected with the Cardillo killing. You can read our investigative report here.

We know that for decades, every attempt to get to the bottom of the Cardillo case has hit the rocks. That includes an initial police investigation, a secret NYPD probe and the special prosecutor inquiry. And more.

Stung by a public outcry after the initial investigation went nowhere, the NYPD tried again. It handed the case to Randy Jurgensen, an NYPD detective highly regarded by his peers. Mr. Jurgensen’s probe was fiercely resisted by NYPD brass, but the headstrong detective persisted. Eventually he found a witness and gathered enough evidence to arrest Mr. Dupree. Mr. Dupree’s first trial resulted in a hung jury. He was acquitted at a second trial. Decades later, trial prosecutors told Judicial Watch they never saw important evidence then in the possession of senior NYPD officials and did not know the FBI had mosque members under surveillance.

Read More

Judicial Watch & The Transparency Crisis

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton was up on Capitol Hill recently preaching the transparency gospel. A few days later, he delivered the same message to the White House and at a special Judicial Watch presentation with House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz. His urgent report: the nation is facing a transparency crisis.

“The United States government is bigger than ever and the most secretive in recent memory,” Tom told the House Oversight Committee. “To be frank, the Obama administration was an enemy of transparency. President Obama promised the most transparent administration in history, but federal agencies turned into black holes in terms of disclosures.”

Judicial Watch is the national leader in filing and litigation of Freedom of Information Act requests. We filed close to 3,000 FOIA requests with the Obama administration. Our attorneys fought nearly 200 FOIA cases through the courts. Famously, Judicial Watch repeatedly scooped the media and government investigators by uncovering documents on Clinton finances, Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the Fast & Furious gun scandal, electoral abuses and illegal activities on the southern border. Our work drives the government and media agenda.

I’m often asked, What is the secret of Judicial Watch’s success? How does it get documents that the mightiest media newsrooms and powerful congressional players seem unable to obtain? I’d like to ascribe it to the brilliance of its chief investigative reporter, but I can’t. The secret sauce of Judicial Watch’s success comes from its dedicated donors, experienced leadership, and most importantly, a cadre of battle-tested litigators and investigators.

Experience counts. The Judicial Watch leadership team—President Tom Fitton, Director of Litigation Paul Orfanedes and Director of Research & Investigations Christopher Farrell—brings almost sixty years of combined FOIA experience to the table. Chris Farrell spearheads a team of accomplished investigators thoroughly versed in state and federal freedom of information statutes. Critically important to these endeavors, all of which come with strict filing requirements and multiple deadlines, is our FOIA program manager, Kate Bailey, who makes sure the FOIA trains run on time.

Paul Orfanedes commands the deepest bench of expert FOIA attorneys in the country. It’s an unfortunate fact of FOIA life that government agencies will often do everything they can to avoid complying with sunshine laws: delays, stonewalls, legal obfuscations and all sorts of chicanery are the name of the game when it comes to high-stakes FOIA actions. Paul and his team have seen every trick in the book. Often—all too often—after our investigators have exhausted every avenue of administrative appeal, it’s time to say “see you in court” and turn the case over to our legal team. In many instances, that’s when the really important documents start to emerge.

I have received countless notes from donors saying, in essence, “I don’t have much money, but I believe in your mission and here’s what I can afford to keep you going.” All my colleagues at Judicial Watch have received similar notes and we are proud of, and grateful for, each and every one. Because without our donors, there is no way our mission could continue. Special investigations and lawsuits are expensive.

At the Capitol Hill hearing, Tom made a revolutionary proposal—he suggested that “Congress should apply the freedom of information concept to itself and the courts, the two branches of the federal government exempt from transparency laws.” He also called attention to a transparency case Judicial Watch is pursuing in regard to hidden assets at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and open-records resistance at the Smithsonian Institution. You can read more about them here. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at other legislative proposals for fostering transparency. Meanwhile, let the sunshine in.

***

Investigative Bulletin leaves for vacation at the end of the week and will return in mid-April.

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org