Journalists break down the FinCEN Files investigation at an event in Medill

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Professional journalists discussed Thursday how to produce a successful investigation at the Chicago campus of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Pulitzer-winning journalist Michael Sallah, Pulitzer-nominated journalist Jason Leopold, and New York Times assistant general counsel David McCraw spoke at the event. They discussed the “FinCEN Files,” a Pulitzer-appointed investigation that revealed steps taken by big banks like HSBC and Standard Chartered to defy money laundering crackdowns, creating pressure on the law enforcement system. American law.

The event was moderated by Debbie Cenziper, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and director of investigative reporting at Medill. She opened the panel by asking Sallah and Leopold how the whistleblower first contacted them. Leopold explained that the journey to the documents was not easy.

“You don’t knock on the door – it doesn’t happen,” said Leopold, senior investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News. “You have to cultivate your sources.”

Leopold had known Natalie Mayflower Sour Edwardswho worked at FinCEN, an anti-money laundering intelligence unit within the Treasury Department, for more than five years.

May Edwards told him she had tried to process the more than 2,000 suspicious activity reports filed by banks and other financial institutions with FinCEN, Leopold said.

“I happen to be a librarian,” Leopold said. “So I asked him to back up his claim with evidence.”

The documents cover more than $2 trillion in transactions. Leopold contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which has created a team in 88 countries to investigate potential money laundering.

Sallah, an investigative reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who worked with Leopold earlier in his career, joined the investigation. He exposed the spread of “dirty dollars”, laundering money from other countries and converting it into US dollars for profit, in countries like Colombia and Russia.

FinCEN had been alerting banks to money laundering and secret transactions since 2004. Journalists said some of the information shocked them. Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch, bought more than 13 steel mills and commercial real estate in the United States with money stolen from Ukraine.

Leopold also attributed part of their success to luck. He contacted an FBI agent about Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager for former President Donald Trump, who had been charged with money laundering. Surprisingly, he said, the agent had retired two days prior and could speak in detail about the Manafort investigation.

The panel ended with a discussion of the human cost of money laundering and the consequences for May Edwards, the original whistleblower.

“There were people who worked at the steel mill in Kolomoisky, and they died because of the fires in the factories,” Sallah said. “We generally think the rich do their own thing and money laundering doesn’t affect other people, but it has a human cost.”

May Edwards was fired after exposing the FinCEN files and was arrested for “unlawfully disclosing” the files to Buzzfeed News. She spent about five months in prison, was released in January 2022 and will be on probation for three years. FinCEN also revamped its whistleblower program after the investigation.

Additionally, the government prepared a case against Leopold, but he was not prosecuted.

“Journalists are more likely to be prosecuted if they themselves seek information from the whistleblower,” McCraw said.

McCraw, who also teaches at Harvard Law School, said Jason was not prosecuted because he did not personally research the information. He said journalists who knowingly seek information from whistleblowers can be prosecuted for criminal intent.

Sallah said it is essential that journalists clearly explain to whistleblowers the consequences of leaking information. The best way to gain the trust of sources is to assure them that the publication will not reveal their identity, he said.

“May Edwards knew all along that her actions would have consequences. Maintaining a clear channel of communication between the whistleblower and the reporter is critical,” Sallah said.

Leopold ended the discussion by expressing his gratitude to Edwards for his bravery.

Although the inquest destroyed his life, he said Edwards was happy to see the resulting change.

“She felt she was disappointing the American people by not being honest, and she values ​​honesty in all walks of life. That’s the quality of a whistleblower,” Leopold said.

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