Talk about suspicious foreign behavior!
Those who are currently embroiled in the ongoing Russia investigation were given a curious nugget of info that could go one of two ways.
On the one hand, it could open a very big door into the ongoing investigation.
On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious, and could be a bit of misdirection from the Kremlin.
Buzzfeed News is reporting on a discovery by the FBI of 60 money transfers sent by the Russian foreign ministry to their embassies around the globe.
That bit of news would likely be underwhelming, if not for the fact that most of them were labeled, “to finance the election campaign of 2016.”
On Aug. 3 of last year, just as the US presidential election was entering its final, heated phase, the Russian foreign ministry sent nearly $30,000 to its embassy in Washington. The wire transfer, which came from a Kremlin-backed Russian bank, landed in one of the embassy’s Citibank accounts and contained a remarkable memo line: “to finance election campaign of 2016.”
That wire transfer is one of more than 60 now being scrutinized by the FBI and other federal agencies investigating Russian involvement in the US election. The transactions, which moved through Citibank accounts and totaled more than $380,000, each came from the Russian foreign ministry and most contained a memo line referencing the financing of the 2016 election.
I want to know who the checks were addressed to.
The money wound up at Russian embassies in almost 60 countries from Afghanistan to Nigeria between Aug. 3 and Sept. 20, 2016. It is not clear how the funds were used. At least one transaction that came into the US originated with VTB Bank, a financial institution that is majority-owned by the Kremlin.
What we know about VTB Bank is that it was sanctioned in 2014 by the U.S. Treasury Department, because of that situation where Russia annexed Crimea. Those sanctions blocked the bank from raising capital or accepting loans from American companies or individuals.
After discovering the $30,000 transfer to the embassy in Washington, Citibank launched a review of other transfers by the Russian foreign ministry. It unearthed dozens of other transactions with similar memo lines. Compliance officers in Citibank’s Global Intelligence Unit flagged them as suspicious, noting that it was unable to determine the financial, business, or legal purpose of the transactions.
Much as checks include a memo line, wire transfers often include a note that states what the money is for. The note on this set of transfers does not indicate what election the money was to be used for, or even the country. Seven nations had federal elections during the span when the funds were sent — including the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, on Sept. 18, 2016. Russian embassies and diplomatic compounds opened polling stations for voters living abroad.
At the end of September the FBI was turned on to the money transfers and began their investigation into just how the money was sent, who sent it, and what it was used for.
This past January, the United States’ Office of Director of National Intelligence, in a “high-confidence” assessment, concluded that Vladimir Putin personally signed off on an influence campaign to help Donald Trump win the presidency. Now, the FBI, a special counsel, and three congressional committees are conducting investigations. The committees have formally requested a wide range of banking and financial records on numerous individuals and businesses with ties to Russia from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN for short.
It was actually requests by the Senate Intelligence Committee to know what actions FinCEN took, as far as supporting law enforcement or the intelligence community’s inquiries into those businesses. Those requests led to the discovery of the wire transfers.
All financial institutions are required to tell FinCEN about any transactions they deem suspicious. Such “suspicious activity reports” do not necessarily prove or even indicate wrongdoing. Federal law also requires financial institutions to file reports on any cash transactions of more than $10,000 in a single day, even if those transactions are legitimate. Banks must also file the reports whenever they suspect money laundering or other financial crimes.
Following the congressional requests, Citibank turned over a range of financial documents. The material includes more than 650 suspicious transactions between November 2013 and March 2017 totaling about $2.9 million. That money was sent to four Russian accounts operating in the US: the embassy; the Office of Defense, Military, Air and Naval Attaches; and Russian cultural centers in Washington and New York City.
To date, they feel most of the transactions are not related to the 2016 election, but they still require scrutiny for ties to potential Russian corruption and money laundering.
One FBI agent suggested that even if they find nothing related to election interference, they have to investigate each transaction, carefully.
“We had an election and the intelligence community concluded Russia interfered in it,” said the FBI agent. “How could we not investigate a suspicious financial transaction that contained a memo that said, ‘finance election campaign 2016?’ Given the climate and what was in that memo line it would be very irresponsible for us not to investigate. It’s a good lead.”