The woman behind at massive leak of U.S. Treasury files that provided unprecedented insight into the financial transactions government investigators found suspicious has been sentenced to six months in prison.
Even during her sentencing, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, 43, positioned herself as a whistleblower for her role disclosing thousands of the U.S. Treasury Department’s suspicious activity reports, also known as SARs, to BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold. She was a senior advisor at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) at the time. (Leopold has not revealed Sours Edwards as the source, but government and defense filings identify her as such.)
“They continued to question me, and at that point, I did tell them that I was a whistleblower,” Edwards said in court on Thursday, recounting her interview by federal authorities years ago. “And I did answer their questions.”
The disclosures first led to a series of stories by that news organization about the then-active Russia investigation before BuzzFeed teamed up with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 400 journalists in 88 countries on what became known as the “FinCEN Files.”
“I never denied passing the SARs to the media,” Edwards said in court. “Everyone was aware.”
Though relatively light, the half-year sentence meted out by U.S. District Judge Gregory H. Woods falls at the high end of the federal guidelines. Edwards will also have three years of supervised release once released from prison.
“This was a very serious crime, made all the worse by the position of trust that Dr. Sours Edwards had achieved,” Judge Woods said in court.
A repository of more than 200,000 suspicious financial transactions valued at more than $2 trillion across multiple global financial institutions for nearly two decades, the files appear to show U.S. authorities and banks doing little to stop apparent money laundering and other financial crimes. News organizations like the European-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) teamed up with Courthouse News on what FinCEN knew about convicted Iranian-Turkish money launderer Reza Zarrab.
OCCRP also teamed up with Law&Crime on what Standard Chartered bank may have known about Zarrab’s multibillion-dollar money laundering scheme violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
After the sentencing, Leopold and BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal issued a statement saying they “strongly condemn” her incarceration.
“Edwards is a brave whistleblower who fought to warn the public about grave risks to America’s national security, first through the official whistleblower process, and then through the press,” BuzzFeed wrote in a statement. “She did so, despite tremendous personal risk, because she believed she owed it to the country she loves.”
Despite the newsworthy revelations, prosecutors claim Sours Edwards was no whistleblower—but a political ideologue nursing sour grapes and hoping to gin up a lawsuit and advance her career. They claim that the files could have tipped off terror networks, money launderers and others that federal authorities were on their trail and disrupted investigations.
Judge Woods denied the ex-Treasury official’s public interest claims.
“We are not here because Dr. Sours Edwards blew the whistle about areas of concern through the proper channels,” he said.
Prosecutors claim that Edwards leaked the files to advance her “own political agenda, which included disrupting or distracting from the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III,” allegedly opining in one private message that the special counsel “needs to go down too.”
“Of course, none of the SARs called into question the basis or propriety of the Special Counsel’s investigation either, although leaking certain of the SARs might reasonably have been expected to negatively impact it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly J. Raven wrote in a sentencing memo last October. “And that was precisely what it appears the defendant hoped would happen.”
A Twitter account attributed to Edwards in the government’s memo shows a hodgepodge of far-right conspiracy theories and causes, including pro-Trump memes, criticism of COVID-19 mask restrictions, and a retweet of a call by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to impeach President Joe Biden—for reasons unknown.
Prosecutors quoted Sours Edwards’s messages about her supposedly thwarted career aspirations.
“I want to be Deputy Director of FinCEN so tell the powerful people to make that happen because I can run that operational bureau better than any of those assterds and I have the qualifications to do it,” Edwards wrote in one message to a reporter, according to the government’s memo.
Edwards started leaking a batch of 1,500 files shortly after that remark, prosecutors claim.
Defending their client’s whistleblower claims, Edwards’ lawyers noted that she voiced her concerns to Congress roughly half a decade ago.
“She identified her whistleblower status and provided information to and met with staff members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Committee on Financial Services, the Senate Committee on Finance, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs,” the defense sentencing memo stated. “Staffers encouraged her to provide more information.”
Edwards also filed a complaint with the Treasury Department’s inspector general, which prosecutors note rejected her claims.
She started leaking suspicious activity reports related to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and ex-Manafort associate Rick Gates to Leopold in October 2017, some five months into the Mueller investigation.
“She did so not because it was, in her misguided view, in the public interest to disclose such materials—but because she believed it was in her own interest,” prosecutors wrote. “Nothing about her disclosing of SARs was akin to ‘bl[owing] the whistle.'”
“Consistent with established policy and procedures, the defendant’s complaints were examined, and, as appropriate, investigated. None was substantiated,” the government added.
Prosecutors estimate that Edwards sent roughly 50,000 documents, including more than 2,000 SARs, to Leopold.
“As the sheer quantity of the disclosures shows, [Edwards] did not limit the information she shared with [Leopold] to certain discrete ‘issues,'” prosecutors wrote, seeking to undermine her public interest argument. “Rather, she unlawfully disclosed thousands of SARs, and other documents, on a vast range of topics and persons.”
In one of the messages investigators found, Edwards told the reporter about her daughter’s reaction to finding a package government files in their house.
“We have govt secrets in a big box in the middle of o[u]r floor,” Edwards recounted the daughter saying, according to the sentencing brief.
Edwards pleaded guilty to one of the offenses on Jan. 13, 2020, but she secretly maintained her innocence on a Twitter account with the handle “Isabella” long after that, prosecutors say.
On Sept. 4, 2020, Edwards retweeted a post on her “Isabella” Twitter account stating, “Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards was framed.”
“That is, of course, nonsense. She admitted her guilt under oath, and the evidence of her guilt is overwhelming,” prosecutors said.
Prosecutors claim that Edwards “put at risk countless investigations” and “aided potential money launderers, terrorist financing networks, and other criminal actors by publicly disclosing the sensitive government analyses meant to assist in the detection and tracking of their conduct.”
“Blinded by her own apparent sense of self-righteousness, [Edwards] remains unwilling to acknowledge the gravity of what she did,” the government’s memo states.
Prosecutors echoed that sentiment during the sentencing proceedings. BuzzFeed struck the opposite note.
“BuzzFeed News strongly supports the actions of whistleblowers and condemns efforts to prosecute them for bringing the truth to light,” they wrote.
Update—June 3 at 3:58 p.m. Central Time: This story has been updated to include a statement by BuzzFeed.
(Photo from the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office)
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