Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, announced Thursday that he was launching an investigation, one that also seeks information about President Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s actions. This investigation follows a Bloomberg report that claimed Trump pressed former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help convince the Department of Justice (DOJ) to drop a criminal case against Reza Zarrab, 34 — an Iranian-Turkish gold trader and a client of Giuliani’s.
“I’m launching an investigation into the Halkbank scandal including whether Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and President Erdogan worked to help the state-owned Turkish bank avoid criminal prosecution for exploiting U.S. financial institutions and engaging in money-laundering,” Wyden announced Thursday on Twitter. “It’s clear that the Trump administration has become a one stop shop for foreign leaders looking to do shady business deals and engage in corruption. This must end, and I won’t stop until I have answers for the American people.”
As the New York Times previously reported, Giuliani sought Tillerson’s help in 2017 in orchestrating a potential prisoner swap with Turkey, even though federal prosecutors had accused Zarrab of “playing a central role in an effort by a state-owned Turkish bank to funnel more than $10 billion worth of gold and cash to Iran, in defiance of United States sanctions designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program.” That Turkish bank is Halkbank. On Oct. 15, the DOJ charged Halkbank for “its participation in a multibillion-dollar Iranian sanctions evasion scheme.”
“Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank, allegedly conspired to undermine the United States Iran sanctions regime by illegally giving Iran access to billions of dollars’ worth of funds, all while deceiving U.S. regulators about the scheme,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a DOJ press release announcing the charges. “This is one of the most serious Iran sanctions violations we have seen, and no business should profit from evading our laws or risking our national security.”
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman, whose office is currently investigating Giuliani’s dealings, alleged that Halkbank management participated in a “brazen scheme to circumvent our nation’s Iran sanctions regime.”
“As alleged in today’s indictment, Halkbank’s systemic participation in the illicit movement of billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil revenue was designed and executed by senior bank officials,” Berman said. “The bank’s audacious conduct was supported and protected by high-ranking Turkish government officials, some of whom received millions of dollars in bribes to promote and protect the scheme.”
“Halkbank will now have to answer for its conduct in an American court,” he added.
According to Bloomberg, the Wyden-led probe wants to know about Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s “alleged involvement with the treatment of Halkbank, one of Turkey’s largest banks”:
Wyden referred to a Bloomberg News report published earlier this month that Trump assigned Mnuchin and Attorney General William Barr to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated pleas to avoid charges against Halkbank.
In an April phone call, Trump told Erdogan that Mnuchin and Barr would handle the issue, according to people familiar with the matter. In the months that followed, no action was taken against Halkbank for its alleged involvement in a plan to evade sanctions on Iran. That changed when an undated indictment was unveiled last week — a day after Trump imposed sanctions over Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria.
In a Wednesday letter, Wyden reportedly gave Mnuchin until Nov. 20 to respond to a request to “share details of all interactions with Turkish officials since taking office.” In that letter, Wyden cited “troubling reports” that are “part of a larger story highlighting Trump’s efforts to accommodate the intense pressure campaign by the Turkish government to get investigations into Halkbank dropped.” The Democratic senator from Oregon also suggested the Trump administration’s “interference in favor of Turkey’s Halkbank requests could have undermined years of effort by U.S. law enforcement.”
As Law&Crime reported before, Giuliani attempted to invoke attorney-client privilege when responding to a New York Times inquiry about his prior discussions with Tillerson. Bloomberg had reported that Trump himself attempted to secure Tillerson’s assistance and asked Tillerson to speak with Giuliani about the Zarrab case. Anonymous sources familiar with the interaction said Tillerson didn’t want to get involved because he thought the request to interfere in an ongoing prosecution was illegal (the Times said Tillerson thought the request was “highly inappropriate”).
Here is what Giuliani did and didn’t tell the Times in an Oct. 10 story:
Mr. Giuliani, in the interview on Thursday, disputed the account provided to The New York Times of his discussion with Mr. Tillerson about Mr. Zarrab — and the assertion that Mr. Tillerson replied that such a step was inappropriate. But Mr. Giuliani did not specify what aspects of the account he found inaccurate, saying he could not discuss the meeting because of attorney-client privilege.
“This is a completely malicious story coming from the consistent attack on me to try to destroy my credibility,” Mr. Giuliani said.
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