NEW YORK – A former top Treasury Department official pleaded guilty Monday to conspiracy for leaking confidential banking reports associated with members of the Trump campaign, following her arrest in October 2018 as she carried a flash drive full of sensitive documents.
Natalie Edwards, 41, entered the plea in Manhattan federal court, where U.S. District Judge Gregory H. Woods set sentencing for June 9. Although the conspiracy charge carried a potential penalty of up to five years in prison, Edwards signed a plea deal with prosecutors that recommended a potential prison sentence of zero to six months, Fox News reported.
The SARs related to wire transfers made by Paul Manafort and other figures in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, including campaign official Richard Gates, Maria Butina and the Russian Embassy.
As law enforcement arrested Edwards, she was carrying a government-issued USB flash drive. It contained thousands of SARs, as well as “highly sensitive material relating to Russia, Iran, and the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” prosecutors said.
“Edwards is not known to be involved in any official FinCEN project or task bearing these file titles or code names,” prosecutors said at the time.
“I am sorry for what I have done and I apologize to you, your honor, and the court,” Edwards said.
Her arrest came on the heels of other high-profile, leak-related prosecutions under the Trump administration, which had pledged to go on the offensive against leakers whom the president has called “traitors and cowards.”
Prosecutors pointed to about a dozen related stories published by BuzzFeed News over the past year-and-a-half, including an article headlined, “GOP Operative Made ‘Suspicious’ Cash Withdrawals During Pursuit of Clinton Emails.”
Another article was titled, “These 13 Wire Transfers Are A Focus of the FBI Probe Into Paul Manafort.”
Edwards transmitted the SARs to the reporter by “taking photographs of them and texting the photographs” using an encrypted application, according to charging documents, which showed that she eventually confessed to doing so. FBI agents obtained a pen register and trap-and-trace order for Edwards’ cellphone during their investigation, according to Fox News.
Moreover, the former Department of Treasury employee additionally sent or described to the BuzzFeed News reporter internal government emails or correspondence related to the reports and investigative memos and intelligence assessments published by her agency’s intelligence division, prosecutors said.
The judge asked Edwards if she knew she was committing a crime. She said she did not “know of the regulation” at the time but she knew about the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.
She added: “I was not allowed under the law to disclose it.”
After consulting with her lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, she said she admitted that she agreed to disclose the SARs.
Outside court, Agnifilo said the case illustrated how “one’s subjective motivations really do not serve as a defense.”
He said prosecutors were “probably of the view that she was more politically motivated than she was for some conception like the good of our republic.”
Agnifilo said his client believed “certain critical facts” weren’t being handled in the right way by the government agencies tasked with handling them, Fox reported.
“She said: ‘You know, if I can’t trust government officials to handle this, I think I can trust the media to handle this and to bring this to the attention of the American people,'” the lawyer said.
Agnifilo said Edwards was in contact with congressional subcommittees and others in government but didn’t believe they were dealing adequately with the information she offered.
In a release, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said Edwards violated the integrity of the system of suspicious activity reports relying on banks and other financial institutions alerting law enforcement to potentially illegal transactions.