A report released on Monday raises new and serious legal issues for special counsel Robert Mueller and provides evidence of a possible conflict of interest in his role overseeing the Russia investigation.
The Hill reports:
In 2009, when Mueller ran the FBI, the bureau asked Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to spend millions of his own dollars funding an FBI-supervised operation to rescue a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, captured in Iran while working for the CIA in 2007.
Yes, that’s the same Deripaska who has surfaced in Mueller’s current investigation and who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration.
More than a dozen participants involved in the Levinson mission confirmed its existence to The Hill and confirmed that Mueller was kept directly informed of the operation.
Officials say that Mueller's FBI courted the Russian billionaire in 2009 in a series of secret meetings and persuaded him to finance the operation.
"We knew he was paying for his team helping us, and that probably ran into the millions," a U.S. official directly involved with the mission said. The Hill notes:
One agent who helped court Deripaska was Andrew McCabe, the recently fired FBI deputy director who played a seminal role starting the Trump-Russia case, multiple sources confirmed.
A lawyer representing Deripaska said the billionaire spent approximately $25 million to assemble a private team that worked with Iranian contacts to try to rescue Levinson before then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton killed the deal.
"Deripaska’s efforts came very close to success," said former federal prosecutor David McGee, who represents Levinson’s family. "We were told at one point that the terms of Levinson’s release had been agreed to by Iran and the U.S. and included a statement by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointing a finger away from Iran. At the last minute, Secretary Clinton decided not to make the agreed-on statement."
The FBI ended the investigation in 2011 and Levinson was never found. The Hill continues:
The FBI had three reasons for choosing Deripaska for a mission worthy of a spy novel. First, his aluminum empire had business in Iran. Second, the FBI wanted a foreigner to fund the operation because spending money in Iran might violate U.S. sanctions and other laws. Third, agents knew Deripaska had been banished since 2006 from the United States by State over reports he had ties to organized crime and other nefarious activities. He denies the allegations, and nothing was ever proven in court.
The FBI has since rewarded Deripaska by allowing him entry into the United States multiple times since 2009, once on a rare law enforcement parole visa and at least eight times on a diplomatic passport, even though he is not a government official.
This is where things get interesting.
Over the past two years, evidence allegedly surfaced tying Deripaska to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was charged by Mueller's team with money laundering and illegal foreign lobbying pre-dating the campaign. Deripaska had previously hired Manafort as a political adviser and then later sued him after a business venture turned sour, claiming that Manafort stole money from him. The Hill adds:
Mueller’s indictment of Manafort makes no mention of Deripaska, even though prosecutors have evidence that Manafort contemplated inviting his old Russian client for a 2016 Trump campaign briefing...
...The U.S. government in April imposed sanctions on Deripaska, one of several prominent Russians targeted to punish Vladimir Putin — using the same sort of allegations that State used from 2006 to 2009. Yet, between those two episodes, Deripaska seemed good enough for the FBI to ask him to fund that multimillion-dollar rescue mission and to allow him into the country eight times.
The Hill's John Solomon was alerted about Deripaska’s past relationship with the FBI by U.S. officials who are suspicious that Mueller may have left him out of Manafort's indictments due to his previous work with the FBI.
According to Solomon, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz thinks Mueller has a serious conflict of interest because his FBI was working with Deripaska, who is a witness in the ongoing probe.
"The real question becomes whether it was proper to leave [Deripaska] out of the Manafort indictment and whether that omission was to avoid the kind of transparency that is really required by the law," Dershowitz told The Hill.
Former Clinton Justice Department lawyer Melanie Sloan told The Hill that an even more significant issue for Mueller is that the FBI operation involving Deripaska might have been illegal.
“It’s possible the bureau’s arrangement with Mr. Deripaska violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the government from accepting voluntary services,” Sloan said.
Solomon also spoke with George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, who said, "If the operation with Deripaska contravened federal law, this figure could be viewed as a potential embarrassment for Mueller. The question is whether he could implicate Mueller in an impropriety."
Mueller has already faced a number of embarrassing setbacks in his investigation, including the revelation from last week that one of the three Russian companies that he indicted did not even exist at the time alleged by the government, according to lawyers for the defendant.
Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III hammered Mueller's team, accusing them of "lying," and accusing them of doing everything in their power to bring down Trump.