Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that Fusion GPS must provide full access to all the bank records Congress has been demanding for months. In a blistering 26 page decision, the judge makes it crystal clear that not a single thing stands in the way of a subpoena issued by Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
This means that “financial transactions between Fusion and certain law firms, media companies, journalists, and contractors” must be turned over to Congress. The judge explained it’s not his job to tell Congress what is relevant. On this one, they outrank him. “This Court will not, and indeed, may not, engage in a line-by-line review of the Committee’s requests.”
The court notes that “during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, an unknown third party engaged Fusion’s services to conduct political opposition research on then-candidate Donald J. Trump.” After that client walked away, another client picked up the contract, looking for the same data. The Washington Post reported that it was “the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee” that provided the funding.
“As part of this research, Fusion hired a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, to research Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. Steele’s research led to a series of memos that has become known in the press as the “Trump Dossier.”
“It was later revealed that Steele was paid an undisclosed sum of money for work he performed on behalf of the FBI and that the Trump Dossier was provided to the FBI in 2016. It also came to light that other individuals in the intelligence community were aware of the Trump Dossier and its contents and that they provided briefings about the Dossier to both President Obama and President-elect Trump in January 2017.”
“As a result, the Committee is seeking to discover who paid Fusion for the Trump Dossier, who received it, whether steps were taken to verify its accuracy, and whether the FBI relied on the Dossier as grounds for its counterintelligence investigation.”
“After reviewing the record, in this case, I cannot say that the documents sought by the subpoena are ‘plainly incompetent or irrelevant’ to the Committee’s lawful purpose.” In fact, the opposite appears to be true. “Public reporting has revealed that two law firms, Perkins Coie and Baker Hostetler, engaged plaintiff’s services on matters directly related to the Committee’s investigation. This fact alone provides a reasonable basis to believe that Fusion’s transactions with other law firms during the same time frame may reveal similarly relevant information.”
That wasn’t all that indicate the records need to be turned over. “The Committee also has intelligence suggesting that Fusion directed Steele to meet with at least five major media outlets to discuss his work on the Trump Dossier. It is thus reasonable for the Committee to pursue records containing Fusion’s transactions with various media companies and journalists to determine whether they, too, had involvement with the Trump Dossier.”
The Committee also is entitled to records of transactions related to certain businesses because they possess “intelligence that links these businesses to Russia and Russian operatives, and thus the transactions between Fusion and these businesses could potentially enable the Committee to investigate the nature of these relationships.”
According to the ruling, “Fusion was accused of acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government, in violation of the Foreign Agent Registration Act, based on work it performed for Prevezon Holdings, a Russian state-owned company.” Prevezon “organized its lobbying efforts through the law firm Baker Hostetler, which was also providing litigation services for Prevezon on a criminal asset forfeiture case being brought by the U.S. Justice Department in the Southern District of New York.”
Judge Leon made a point of protecting the public’s interests during the proceedings. After some housekeeping by combining paperwork, he “also expressed concern that all of the pleadings had been filed under seal. Noting that ‘having public, open hearings on a matter is in the best interest of all concerned,’ I ordered that the pleadings ‘be reconstituted and refiled not under seal.’”
The truly confidential issues stayed sealed but “the bulk of the pleadings were refiled in a redacted, public format.” Hearings were conducted in two stages, “a public session for legal arguments, and a sealed session to discuss any confidential issues that might need to be addressed by the parties.”
Fusion based their arguments on four claims. The subpoena lacked a valid legislative purpose; it asked for information not relevant to the investigation; it violated rights to privacy and association and; it violated banking privacy acts.
Judge Leon picked those apart one by one. “Fusion’s theory appears to be that every Congressional investigation must be authorized by a separate formal resolution in order to qualify as a legitimate legislative activity. To say the least, that is wishful thinking!” He noted “The very nature of the investigative function, like any research, is that it takes the searchers up some ‘blind alleys’ and into nonproductive enterprises. To be a valid legislative inquiry there need be no predictable end result.”
Fusion is afraid that revealing who their clients are would ruin their business by preventing clients “from contracting anonymously with Fusion in the future.” Boo-hoo, says Judge Leon. “Plaintiff points to no authority to support its theory that the freedom of association protects financial records. And this is not surprising, given that commercial transactions do not give rise to associational rights.” Even if the research fusion conducted was political in nature, the financial relationship is not. “The First Amendment is not a secrecy pact!” he writes.