WASHINGTON - A senior Treasury Department employee was charged Wednesday with leaking to a reporter confidential government reports about the financial transactions of Trump associates and others under scrutiny in the special counsel's probe of Russian election interference.
The charges reflect the latest move in the Trump administration's effort to punish leakers within the government. Earlier this week, a former senior Senate staffer pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents in a separate leak investigation.
The Treasury case centers on a dozen stories published by BuzzFeed News that described suspicious activity reports, or SARs, which are generated by banks when a financial transaction may involve illegal activity.
Prosecutors charged Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards with the unauthorized disclosure of suspicious activity reports and conspiracy. The charges were filed in federal court in New York but she made her first court appearance in northern Virginia.
Edwards, 40, lives outside Richmond, Virginia, and works as a senior adviser at the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, often referred to as "FinCEN." At a brief court appearance in Alexandria, she was released on $100,000 bond and instructed to appear next month in court in New York. She was also prohibited from speaking to anyone at FinCEN or accessing any FinCEN equipment.
Her lawyer, Peter Greenspun, declined to comment.
Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Edwards "betrayed her position of trust by repeatedly disclosing highly sensitive information."
The stories cited in the criminal complaint filed against Edwards match the headlines, wording and information contained in BuzzFeed News stories, though the court papers did not identify the news organization by name.
Those stories often focused on suspicious activity reports related to key figures in the investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Russian diplomats and other Trump associates.
One of the stories published in September included financial transactions involving Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist who helped arrange a meeting between senior Trump advisers and a Russian lawyer in 2016 that has been a focus of the investigation.
Goldstone in an email called it "outrageous" that his "personal and private regular banking details were leaked to Buzzfeed in order to create a salacious story."
The last Buzzfeed story cited in the charging documents was published on Monday, again drawing largely on information from SARs reports.
About 2 million suspicious activity reports were filed in 2017 by banks, money service businesses, casinos and others, according to FinCEN officials. On their own, suspicious activity reports often do not mean very much. But taken with other evidence, they can help guide investigators to specific transactions that might involve financial crimes.
The 18-page criminal complaint details a search of Edwards' phone and a flash drive she possessed, on which FBI agents say they found a lengthy digital trail of her interactions with the reporters, in which she shared SARS reports.
"The majority of the files were saved to a folder on the flash drive entitled 'Debacle - Operation-CF,' and sub-folders bearing names such as 'Debacle\Emails\Asshat'," the complaint stated. "Edwards is not known to be involved in any official FinCEN project or task bearing these file titles or code names."
The flash drive files "appear to contain thousands of SARs, along with other highly sensitive material relating to Russia, Iran, and the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," the complaint charges.
When FBI agents questioned Edwards on Tuesday, she initially denied having contacts with the reporter whose name appears on the stories at issue, then "changed her account, and admitted that on numerous occasions, she accessed SARs on her computer, photographed them, and sent those photographs to Reporter-1" using an encrypted application on her phone, according to the complaint.
The court filing said Edwards referred to herself as a whistleblower in the interview, but added while she had previously filed a whistleblower complaint related to her work, that did not involve the SARs disclosures.
The court documents also indicate the FBI has investigated one of Edwards' bosses, an associate director of FinCEN, noting that person exchanged 325 text messages with the reporter in question during the month when the first story appeared citing SARs reports.
The boss, referred to in court papers as Edwards "co-conspirator," was not identified in court papers. People familiar with the case identified the person as Kip Brailey. Brailey did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
A FinCEN spokesman said Edwards has been placed on administrative leave, and declined to comment about Brailey.
A BuzzFeed spokesman declined to comment.
This article was written by Matt Zapotosky and Rachel Weiner, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Rosalind S. Helderman and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.