WASHINGTON – John H. Durham, the special advocate appointed by the Trump administration to review the Russia investigation, told the Justice Department he would ask a grand jury to indict a prominent cybersecurity lawyer for making a false statement to the FBI, people familiar with the matter said.
Any indictment against the lawyer – Michael Sussmann, former federal prosecutor and now a partner at law firm Perkins Coie, and who represented the Democratic National Committee on Issues Related to Russia’s 2016 Hacking of Its Servers – is likely to attract significant political attention.
Donald J. Trump and his supporters have long accused Democrats and Perkins Coie – whose political law group, a separate division from Mr. Sussmann’s, represented Hillary Clinton’s party and campaign – of seeking to arouse suspicion unfair over Mr. Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.
The case against Mr. Sussmann centers on who his client was when he conveyed certain suspicions about Mr. Trump and Russia to the FBI in September 2016. Among other things, investigators examined whether Mr. Sussmann secretly worked for the Clintons. campaign – which he denies.
An indictment is not a certainty: on rare occasions, grand juries reject prosecutors’ requests. But Mr Sussmann’s attorneys Sean M. Berkowitz and Michael S. Bosworth of Latham & Watkins admitted Wednesday that they expected him to be charged, while denying that he had made a false statement.
“Mr. Sussmann has committed no crime,” they said. “Any prosecution here would be groundless, unprecedented, and an unwarranted deviation from the apolitical and principled manner in which the Justice Department is supposed to make its We are convinced that if Mr. Sussmann is charged he will prevail at trial and justify his good reputation.
A spokesman for Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who has the power to quash Mr Durham but reportedly refused to do so, made no comment. Neither has a spokesperson for Mr. Durham.
The charge against Mr. Sussmann centers on a meeting he had on September 19, 2016 with James A. Baker, who was the FBI’s top lawyer at the time, according to people familiar with the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
Due to a five-year statute of limitations for such cases, Mr Durham has a deadline this weekend to lay a charge on the activity from that date.
At the meeting, Sussmann relayed data and analysis from cybersecurity researchers who believed strange internet data could be evidence of a secret communication channel between computer servers associated with the Trump organization and Alfa. Bank, a Russian financial institution linked to the Kremlin.
The FBI ultimately decided that these concerns were unfounded. The special advocate who later took over the Russia investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, ignored the case in his final report.
Lawyers for Mr Sussmann told the Justice Department he requested the meeting because he and cybersecurity researchers believed the New York Times was about to publish an article on Alfa Bank data and that he wanted to tell the FBI. . (In fact, The Times was not ready to publish this article, but did publish one mentioning Alfa Bank six weeks later.)
Mr Durham brought in a grand jury to review the Alfa Bank episode and appeared to be looking for any evidence that the data had been handpicked or that their analysis was knowingly flawed, the New Yorker and others reported. media. To date, there has been no public sign that he has found such evidence.
But Mr Durham apparently found an inconsistency: Mr Baker, the former FBI lawyer, reportedly told investigators he remembered Mr Sussmann saying he was not meeting with him on behalf of any client. But in a deposition to Congress in 2017, Mr Sussmann said he requested the meeting on behalf of an anonymous client who was a cybersecurity expert and helped analyze the data.
Additionally, internal billing records Mr. Durham allegedly obtained from Perkins Coie would show that when Mr. Sussmann recorded certain hours as working on the Alfa Bank case – but not the meeting with Mr. Baker – he billed for the time. for Ms. Clinton’s 2016 Campaign.
Another Perkins Coie partner, Marc Elias, was then general counsel for the Clinton campaign. Mr Elias, who did not respond to inquiries, left Perkins Coie last month.
In their attempt to avoid indictment, Mr Sussmann’s attorneys reportedly insisted that their client represented the cybersecurity expert he mentioned to Congress and that he was not there on behalf of or under the authority of leadership of the Clinton campaign.
They also allegedly argued that the billing records were misleading because Mr Sussmann was not billing his client for work on the Alfa Bank case, but had to show internally that he was working on something. He was discussing the matter with Mr Elias and the campaign paid the company a lump sum monthly compensation, so Mr Sussmann’s hours did not result in any additional charges, they said.
Last October, as Mr. Durham focused on the Alfa Bank case, the researcher who raised the concerns with Mr. Sussmann hired a new lawyer, Steven A. Tyrrell.
Speaking on the condition that the New York Times not name his client in this article, citing a fear of harassment, Mr Tyrrell said his client believed Mr Sussmann was representing him at the meeting with Mr Baker.
“My client is an apolitical cybersecurity expert with a history of public service who felt compelled to share with law enforcement the sensitive information provided to him by DNS experts,” Mr. Tyrrell said, referring to “Domain Name System”, part of the way the internet works and that generated the data that was at the root of Alfa Bank’s concerns.
Mr. Tyrrell added: “He sought legal advice from Michael Sussmann who had advised him on unrelated matters in the past and Mr. Sussmann shared this information with the FBI on his behalf. He didn’t know that Mr. Sussmann’s law firm had a relationship with the Clinton campaign and was just doing the right thing.
Mr. Trump’s supporters have long been suspicious of Perkins Coie. On behalf of the Democrats, Mr. Elias commissioned a research firm, Fusion GPS, to examine Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. This resulted in the so-called Steele dossier, a notorious collection of rumors about Trump-Russia relations. The FBI cited some information from the file in botched wiretapping applications.
Some of the questions Mr Durham’s team have posed in recent months – including witnesses they have called to appear before a grand jury, according to people familiar with some of the sessions – suggest he pursued a theory that the Clinton campaign used Perkins Coie. submitting questionable information to the FBI about Russia and Mr. Trump in a bid to launch an investigation to harm his 2016 campaign.
Mr Durham has also apparently considered taking legal action against Perkins Coie as an organization. Lawyers outside the firm recently met with the special counsel team and reviewed the evidence, others familiar with their discussions said, arguing it was insufficient for any legal sanction.
Lawyers for Perkins Coie and the firm’s managing partner did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Mr. Sussmann and his company have been particular targets for Mr. Trump and his supporters.
In October 2018, a Wall Street Journal columnist attacked Mr. Sussmann, calling him “a key figure for the DNC and Clinton company campaign accounts”, apparently mistaking him for Mr. Elias. Perkins Coie responded with a letter to the editor saying it was not Mr. Sussmann’s role and that the anonymous client on whose behalf he spoke to the FBI had “no connection with the Clinton campaign, the DNC or any other client of a political law group. “
Four months later, Mr. Trump attacked Mr. Sussmann by name in a pair of slightly scrambled Twitter posts, trying to link him to the Clinton campaign and the Steele dossier.
Raising the specter of politicization in the Durham inquiry, Mr Sussmann’s attorneys reportedly argued with the Justice Department that Mr Baker’s recollection was erroneous, unimportant and too weak a basis for a false accusation. statements. There were no other witnesses to the conversation, those familiar with the matter said.
In a deposition to Congress in 2018, Mr Baker said he did not recall Mr Sussmann “specifically saying he was acting on behalf of a particular client”, but also said Mr Sussmann told him had said “that he had cyber experts who had obtained certain information which they believed should fall into the hands of the FBI”
However, Mr Durham’s team reportedly found handwritten notes taken by another senior FBI official at the time, which Mr Baker informed about the conversation with Mr Sussmann, which support the idea that Mr Sussmann said he was not there on behalf of a client. It is not clear whether such notes would be admissible at trial under the so-called hearsay rule.
An attorney for Mr. Baker declined to comment.
Mr Durham has been pressured to release some of the results of his long-standing investigation, which began when then Attorney General William P. Barr tasked him in 2019 to investigate the investigation into Russia. Out of office and exiled from Twitter, Mr Trump issued angry statements: “Where is Durham?