The lawyer for a former FBI informant who gathered evidence of a massive Russian bribery scheme to influence U.S. nuclear policy during the Obama administration says it is illegal for the government to prevent her client from speaking to Congress about what he knows.
She also says her client’s revelations went largely ignored by the FBI for political reasons and that he was threatened with criminal prosecution by the Justice Department under former Attorney General Loretta Lynch if he ever spoke publicly about the case.
Victoria Toensing has been representing the unnamed informant for the past several weeks. Toensing is a former deputy assistant attorney general and a former federal prosecutor. She is now a partner in the Washington law firm of diGenova & Toensing.
She says this whole saga began more than eight years ago.
“My client began working with the FBI in 2009 after he was contracted with the Russian company in the nuclear business. All of a sudden, he was asked to take part of his salary and give it as kickback money in bribes. They didn’t say it that way. They just said take part and pay this person, pay that person. So he went to the FBI. He was appalled,” said Toensing.
“The FBI saw an opportunity and they said, ‘Work undercover for us.’ So he thought he was being a good American and he reported not only the payoffs – that was just run of the mill corruption, it’s bad corruption – but also it was important for the government as a counterintelligence measure to get information about what the Russians were doing,” said Toensing.
Toensing says her client fed volumes of information to the FBI only to learn the bureau did nothing with it.
“So that started in 2009. Can you imagine my client’s surprise when he finds out in October 2010 that the U.S. government authorized the purchase by these corrupt companies of a company [that provided] 20 percent of the uranium for the United States?” said Toensing.
The informant was dumbfounded.
“‘Why did this go through? Why did this happen? Look, I’ve been giving you all this information,’ he says to his FBI people. They kind of rolled their eyes and one of them said, ‘Politics,'” said Toensing.
No prosecutions occurred in the case until 2014 and Toensing says even then the worst penalties amounted to a slap on the wrist. The ordeal took a much uglier turn when the Justice Department refused the informant’s request for reimbursement.
“My client was never given the money back that he paid out from his own salary that the FBI had promised to give him, so he brought suit in 2016,” said Toensing, who was not representing him at that time.
“When he filed this suit, the Loretta Lynch Justice Department called his lawyer and threatened him and said, ‘If you don’t withdraw this lawsuit, we’re going after your liberty and reputation,” she added.
The Justice Department staked its argument on the non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, that the informant signed when first agreeing to funnel evidence to the FBI.
“They said, ‘You signed a non-disclosure agreement when you started working and you will be violation of that non-disclosure agreement, and we will prosecute you for that,'” said Toensing.
In decades of legal work, Toensing says she’s never come across a threat like that over an NDA.
“I’ve never heard of a criminal penalty in a non-disclosure agreement. It’s usually a civil penalty, a $25,000 fine or something,” said Toensing, who also says there almost always exceptions to the NDA, such as court subpoenas or congressional testimony.
Furthermore, she says the Justice Department won’t even allow her client to see his NDA.
“How do I know? When the lawyer in 2016 filed a [Freedom of Information] request to get that non-disclosure agreement, the government refused to answer, wouldn’t even respond,” said Toensing.
The effort now is to waive the terms of the NDA. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is formally inviting Toensing’s client to testify and also asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to release him from the NDA to testify.
Toensing says if given the opportunity, her client’s testimony will be “significant” but she doesn’t see how the testimony can legally be blocked.
“It’s a constitutional issue. The executive branch can’t forbid someone from giving information to the legislative branch. That’s a separation of powers issue,” said Toensing.
When asked if Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the probe into Russian involvement in the 2016 elections could complicate his decision on Grassley’s request for the informant to testify, Toensing says it is vital no to intertwine or conflate the two matters.
“No, no, no, no. Don’t do this. This is not all things Russia. I haven’t met a reporter yet who understands this, which shows you how good the Democrats are in their talking points.
“Jeff (Sessions) recused himself because he was involved in the campaign and there’s a specific Justice Department guideline that says if the campaign is being investigated, if you participated in the campaign you have to recuse yourself. This is not all things Russia,” said Toensing.
She says Trump could also release her client from his NDA.
While on the subject of recusal, Toensing says former FBI Director Robert Mueller ought to step aside as special counsel following the revelation from the informant that the FBI sat on the Russian corruption while Mueller was in charge.
Toensing says that alone is not evidence of any misdeeds by Mueller, but she says the mere appearance of impropriety should lead him to step away from the investigation.
In addition, she says the virtual media blackout on this story since the explosive reports emerged earlier in the week is stunning.
“Gosh, it’s just amazing. I was told by a friend of mine that knows something about this that he approached CNN and they said, ‘No, we don’t want to do it.’
“I was called by CNN [Thursday] just to give some facts. At the end, I said, ‘Well, why don’t you have me on.’ ‘Oh that’s a good idea. We’ll get back to you,'” said Toensing.
“Jake Tapper had (former Attorney General) Eric Holder on the other day after this story broke and didn’t even ask him if he had been briefed on the corruption investigation. He didn’t even ask him. He calls himself a journalist?” said Toensing.