Judicial Watch

Menendez & Netanyahu

The federal corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez and his very good amigo, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, is underway in New Jersey. It doesn’t appear to be going well for the prosecution.

On Tuesday, the government put Dr. Melgen’s girlfriends on the stand, and they weren’t happy about it. Senator Menendez is accused, inter alia, of exerting improper influence to obtain visas for the foreign-born women in exchange for gifts—bribes, prosecutors say—from Dr. Melgen. Svitlana Buchyk, a “model and actress,” had the courtroom “laughing at some of her answers,” Politico reported. When asked by a defense attorney how long she had spent with prosecutors preparing her testimony, she said she didn’t know, “it just seems very long when I’m around them.”

Asked if she understood why she was in court, Ms. Buchyk “let out a long, exasperated ‘no,’” Politico reported. “No, I don’t know why I’m here,” she said, indicating lead prosecutor Peter Koski. “He’s just forcing me to be here.”

In the courtroom, Judge William Walls did not allow Dr. Melgen’s girlfriends to be referred to as “girlfriends,” only “friendship” was acknowledged, fooling no one. In a bizarre filing before the trial opened, the government worked hard to portray the senator and the wealthy doctor as two dirty old men living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Dr. Melgen wanted to bring his young “foreign girlfriends to the United States to visit him,” the document notes. The women were “from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Ukraine.” Senator Menendez helped with the visas. Dr. Melgen arranged for Mr. Menendez and his girlfriend (oh by the way both men are married) “to stay in Punta Cana, an exclusive oceanside resort town” in the Dominican Republic.

On other occasions, the two men and their, er, friends, enjoyed vacations “at Melgen’s villa at Casa de Campo, a cloistered resort on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic with renowned golf courses, a spa, polo fields, a marina, restaurants and other amenities.” The trial brief describes an “enclave, venerated for its seclusion” and “frequently visited by luminaries in sports, entertainment and business, including Beyonce, Jay-Z, Jennifer Lopez, Richard Branson and Bill Gates.” Elsewhere in the brief, the government notes that with assistance for Dr. Melgen, Mr. Menendez stayed at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Paris, “one of Europe’s most elite, routinely hosting celebrities from the world over, including the likes of George Clooney and Maria Sharapova.”

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Extreme Transparency & Discretionary Disclosure

These are tough times for transparency. But let’s be honest: does anyone care? The concept has an “eat your vegetables” feel to it. Deep down we know it’s good for us, but, meh.

If you think transparency and sunshine laws don’t matter, consider these recent items:

  • despite enormous public interest, the federal government has declined to release a redacted report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election
  • President Trump refuses to make his tax returns public and will not release White House visitor logs
  • the majority leader of the United States Senate attempted to ram through a colossal change in American health care with a bill written in near-total secrecy
  • the House of Representatives repealed an SEC rule requiring that extractive industries disclose payments to foreign governments, killing an effective “follow the money” transparency measure that deterred payoffs and bribes
  • anonymously owned shell companies are steering billions in dirty money to U.S. luxury real-estate markets
  • fighting government stonewalls, Judicial Watch has been forced to sue in federal court for former FBI Director James Comey’s memo of his meeting with President Trump, and to file five additional lawsuits related to alleged monitoring of the president and his associates in the Russia connection case

There’s plenty of blame to go around for transparency failures. But as Judicial Watch’s Director of Investigations Chris Farrell has pointed out, when it comes to sunshine actions, the Trump White House has a solution at hand that’s both elegantly simple and breathtakingly radical. The Freedom of Information Act allows for the executive branch to make “discretionary disclosures.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Road Map To The Russian Connection

The headlines out of Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing on the Russian connection confirmed what has been widely reported: the FBI is investigating Team Trump’s alleged involvement with Russian government entities during the 2016 election and Mr. Trump’s charge that Barack Obama wiretapped him during the campaign is baseless. Every high-profile congressional hearing is largely kabuki theater and this one was no different: the party out of power sees abuses everywhere and the party in power plays defense, but careful observers often can glean indications of what is happening behind the scenes. That’s the case with Monday’s session.

The money quote comes from FBI Director James Comey. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Mr. Comey said, is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

That’s a broad mandate. As I’ve noted before, the most consequential of the many probes launched into the Russian connection—Congress, law enforcement, the media—will come from the FBI. Mr. Comey is back in the hot seat. Congress has an important public-information role to play, including on the related issues of leaks and cyber-security, but the main game is the FBI.

On Monday, Mr. Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers repeatedly turned aside questions about the Trump campaign, but important clues about the direction of the investigation surfaced in the opening statement of Representative Adam Schiff, the minority leader on the committee. Mr. Schiff is a partisan Democrat, but he’s also a former federal prosecutor and a member of the Gang of Eight—the top congressional leaders who receive classified briefings from the intelligence community, including on the Russian connection. So Mr. Schiff knows more than he can say. On Monday, he pushed the envelope.

Mr. Schiff signaled that four individuals are at the center of the FBI counterintelligence probe: Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort. None of these names come as a surprise to anyone following the story. All have been named in press accounts.

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The Preet Heat

President Trump sent another shock wave through the legal system Friday with an abrupt Justice Department demand that all forty-six U.S. Attorneys held over from the Obama Administration hand in their resignations immediately. The U.S. Attorney from the storied Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, had good reason to think he might be exempt from this demand: in November, following a highly publicized meeting in Trump Tower, then-President-elect Trump asked Mr. Bharara to stay on.

What changed? Mr. Bharara simply may have been a victim of raw power politics—he is a former chief counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer and there is no love lost between the Senate minority leader and the president. But as I noted in November, the SDNY is no ordinary crime-fighting post. It’s been home to law-enforcement legends such as Henry Stimson, Thomas Dewey, Robert Morgenthau and Rudy Giuliani. It’s size, Manhattan location and jurisdiction over Wall Street make it an important player in the U.S. justice system, famously independent of Washington.

Mr. Bharara established himself as a respected non-partisan scourge of political corruption, sending to jail more than twenty-five corrupt New York political figures, including Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and the majority leader of the New York State Senate, Dean Skelos, a Republican. The SDNY is currently taking a close look at associates of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo in separate corruption cases.

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Deconstructing The Russian Connection

President Trump threw gasoline on the bonfire of the Russian connection over the weekend, tweeting that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.” In case anyone wasn’t getting the message, in another tweet he added, “This is Nixon/Watergate.” A spokesman for Mr. Obama swiftly rejected the charge. On Sunday, the White House demanded that Congress investigate President Trump’s charge of Mr. Obama’s abuse of power.

To Mr. Trump’s critics, these developments are the continuation of a pattern of outrageous statements designed to shift the focus away from his administration. To his supporters, the Russian connection is a baseless concoction whipped up by the media and political opponents—and driven by a steady flow of leaks from within the government—to delegitimize his presidency.

In November, the website Heat Street reported that the FBI obtained a warrant from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to examine activities by individuals related to the Trump campaign. Other similar reports followed. If they’re accurate—and color me a skeptic—President Trump can settle the wiretap issue quickly by declassifying and releasing any FISA warrants related to the campaign.

But whatever side you take in the Russian connection, it’s clear this scandal is not going away anytime soon. With that in mind, let’s briefly deconstruct what this mess is actually about.

The central issue of the Russian connection is Kremlin-linked hacking and related activities during the 2016 presidential campaign. Did Mr. Trump or his team have any knowledge of these activities, other than news reports? Did they in any way knowingly collude with agents of the Russian government?

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly went to great lengths to defended Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime. Suspicions grew that the Russians had something damaging on the candidate. That question now haunts his presidency.

The most consequential of the investigations into the Russian connection is led by the FBI. So once again, James Comey is in the hot seat. The House and Senate intelligence committees, judiciary committees, and the House oversight committee all are conducting probes as well. Media reporting and leaks continue to drive the story. Will there be a special select committee, a bi-partisan panel or a special prosecutor? Only if there are additional damaging revelations, and only after the congressional probes play out.

Beyond the 2016 election, two key areas link Mr. Trump to the Russians: his financial dealings in the early years of the new century with figures associated with Russian organized crime, and his history with Atlantic City casinos and customers.

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Who Is Felix Sater?

Felix Sater is back. The Donald Trump business associate last month splashed down in the middle of a New York Times story about a freelanced Ukraine “peace proposal” hand-delivered to the White House by Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen. Mr. Cohen dropped the proposal off in a sealed envelope at the office of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The deal outlined “a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia” in exchange for a withdrawal of Kremlin-aligned forces from eastern Ukraine and a long-term lease of Crimea to Moscow, the Times reported. The government of Ukraine was not pleased. A spokesman called the deal a “gross violation of the [Ukraine] Constitution” by forces “covertly representing Russian interests.”

A Russian-American businessman with a colorful criminal past, Mr. Sater was the middleman for the Ukraine deal. He connected a possibly corrupt Ukrainian politician, the putative author of the proposal, to Mr. Cohen, the Trump confidant. Mr. Sater’s history with Mr. Trump fills in a few blanks about the president’s Russia links prior to the 2016 presidential campaign. The Ukraine case puts him in the here-and-now, at the center of the Trump universe, drawing a line from Mr. Trump’s past activities to his inner circle today.

Every president has sketchy characters in his past. Barack Obama and Tony Rezko, George W. Bush and James Bath, Bill Clinton and Dan Lasater, and David Edwards, and James McDougal, and…don’t get me started. But these figures are usually pushed to the margins of the administration—or right out the door. Mr. Trump has had several opportunities over the years to show Mr. Sater the door, but Mr. Sater keeps appearing in the middle of Mr. Trump’s business.

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