NEW YORK (AP) — A former U.S. Treasury Department worker was sentenced to six months in prison Thursday for leaking confidential financial reports to a journalist at BuzzFeed.
Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards pleaded guilty last year to a conspiracy charge, admitting she leaked banking reports, including some related to people being investigated in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of foreign interference in U.S. elections.
The government said the material leaked for more than a year included reports on Paul Manafort, former President Donald Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, along with a woman charged with trying to infiltrate U.S. political organizations as a covert Russian agent.
U.S. District Judge Gregory H. Woods gave Edwards, who was arrested in 2018, a sentence at the top of the federal sentencing guidelines range.
Woods called her actions “illegal and wrong" and said they “made our country less safe.”
Prosecutors had requested “serious punishment” for Edwards, saying she had betrayed the public and risked hindering ongoing and future investigations. Defense lawyers urged a sentence of time served.
Edwards worked for multiple federal government agencies before serving as senior adviser to the head of the Intelligence Division at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, also known as FinCEN, a bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department responsible for safeguarding the nation's financial system.
Prosecutors said she leaked over 2,000 confidential suspicious activity reports and more than 50,000 documents in all. Banks are required to file suspicious activity reports with the Treasury Department when they spot transactions that raise questions about possible financial misconduct such as money laundering.
Prosecutors said Edwards shared her information with a journalist who then shared thousands of suspicious activity reports with publications worldwide. While the journalist has not been named by prosecutors, other court documents identify him as Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold. He was in court Thursday and declined comment afterward.
BuzzFeed and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published a trove of stories, dubbed “The FinCEN Files,” that were based on material obtained from Edwards.
Among other things, the stories examined regulatory failures in spotting and cracking down on international money laundering.
Before she was sentenced, Edwards spoke at length about her American Indian heritage and the influence of Indians on our founding fathers.
But she also said: “I do apologize for the disclosure of that information.”
In a statement, BuzzFeed spokesperson Matt Mittenthal called Edwards a ”brave whistleblower" and said the news organization “strongly condemns today's sentence.”
“She fought to warn the public about grave risks to America’s national security, first through the official whistleblower process, and then through the press. She did so, despite tremendous personal risk, because she believed she owed it to the country she loves,” he said.
Mittenthal said Edwards enabled BuzzFeed News and 108 media organizations in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to publish the “FinCEN Files.”
“That investigation has helped to inspire major reform and legal action in the United States, the E.U., and countries around the world,” Mittenthal said, adding that BuzzFeed for the first time Thursday acknowledged Edwards's role in the project after she gave permission to say she provided the suspicious activity reports.
Edwards lawyer, Stephanie M. Carvlin, argued that Edwards made her disclosures after concluding that people running the Treasury Department were through wrongdoing “creating a dangerous situation for the American people.”
“She wasn't doing it for money ... for personal glory,” Carvlin said. “She wants to help the American people.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Ravener said the portrayal of Edwards as a whistleblower was “simply false,” and she criticized her for lacking remorse.
The prosecutor said Edwards made complaints internally, but her claims were not substantiated and she then leaked materials that jeopardized investigations ranging from terrorism to public corruption.
She said her leaks also had a “chilling effect” on the financial sector's willingness to comply with disclosure requirements.
Ravener said Edwards hoped to leverage her claims into a promotion.
As he announced the sentence, Woods said it was “sad and perhaps ironic” that Edwards went into public service because she was upset over the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
He said she “came to believe disclosing America's secrets would somehow be beneficial to our nation.”
According to the online site “U.S. Press Freedom Tracker,” eight people have been prosecuted for leaking information to journalists since 2017.
The cases included a counterterrorism analyst charged with leaking classified documents, an Internal Revenue Service employee accused of leaking suspicious financial transactions and the longtime director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who was charged with lying to the FBI about contact with journalists.
The sentencing also came a day after The New York Times reported that the Justice Department had secretly seized phone records for a nearly four-month period in 2017 of four of its reporters during a leaks probe carried out while Donald Trump was president. Similar disclosures were made last month to The Washington Post and CNN about the seizure of phone records of reporters for Trump-era probes.
News agencies have been informed about the seizures by the Justice Department under President Joe Biden, who has said phone records of reporters will not be secretly viewed while he is president.
Larry Neumeister, The Associated Press