A former government official who shared confidential bank documents with a journalist, sparking a global investigation into illicit money flows, was sentenced on Thursday to six months in prison by a United States federal judge.
The sentencing marks the end of a years-long saga for the official, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, who worked as a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network prior to her arrest in 2018.
At the heart of Edwards’ case were so-called suspicious activity reports, highly confidential documents that banks are required to submit to FinCEN when they suspect that a customer is committing a crime or moving stolen money. The office and the financial data it collects play a crucial role in fighting money laundering. Last year, Edwards pleaded guilty to leaking records to a reporter, which other court documents identify as Jason Leopold of BuzzFeed News.
The sentencing order, handed down by Judge Gregory Woods of the Southern District of New York, requires Edwards to spend three years on supervised release after her prison term.
“A meaningful sentence is important in this case to impose a just punishment,” Woods said, explaining the sentence in a Manhattan courtroom. “She abused a position of trust and broke a law that was designed to stop criminals.”
After the sentencing, BuzzFeed News for the first time acknowledged that Edwards was its source for the roughly 2,100 secret bank reports that propelled the FinCEN Files investigation.
“Because of Ms. Edwards’s bravery, BuzzFeed News, along with the 108 media organizations in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, were able to publish the FinCEN Files, which revealed financial corruption on a global scale,” BuzzFeed News spokesperson Matt Mittenthal said in a statement. “That investigation has helped to inspire major reform and legal action in the United States, the E.U., and countries around the world. ”
In court filings, Edwards portrayed herself as a whistleblower who turned to the media in order to expose misconduct within her office. She believed that Treasury officials had illegally stored sensitive financial data on U.S. citizens and that FinCEN may not have been providing full information to the U.S. Congress in investigating Russian interference in U.S. elections, according to a court filing.
During the sentencing, Edwards’ attorney Stephanie Carvlin said Leopold had “cultivated” Edwards as a source because she believed it was an imperative to expose wrongdoing and had exhausted the internal whistleblower channels, according to BuzzFeed News.
During her sentencing, Edwards apologized for disclosing the FinCEN records and claimed that she had notified multiple offices within the federal government of her disclosures.
Judge Woods said that although Edwards appeared to be initially driven by whistleblowing, the records she provided the media covered a scope far beyond her initial concerns.
The FinCEN Files investigation is credited with sparking new efforts by governments around the world to fight money laundering.
After the sentence was made public, Ben Smith, BuzzFeed News’ former editor-in-chief, now a media columnist for the New York Times, criticized the decision.
“This woman is going to prison for six months for her role in revealing systemic global financial corruption, and inspiring legal changes all over the world,” he wrote in a tweet.
After ICIJ, BuzzFeed News and other partners approached the Treasury Department with the investigation’s findings, the department announced a plan to “address the evolving threats of illicit finance.” New York’s top banking regulator, who plays a large role in policing global banks, acknowledged dirty money had metastasized “within the guts of financial institutions.”
Key members of Congress credited the FinCEN Files with playing an important role in the final push that led to the passage of the Corporate Transparency Act, the biggest revision of U.S. anti-money laundering policy in a generation. Authorities in Liberia, Seychelles, the United Kingdom and Thailand launched inquiries and lawmakers in the European Parliament demanded a more aggressive approach to fighting money laundering.
In its statement, BuzzFeed News pointed to the reforms sparked by the trove of files that Edwards leaked.
“Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards is a brave whistleblower,” Mittenthal, the BuzzFeed News spokesperson said. “She fought to warn the public about grave risks to America’s national security, first through the official whistleblower process, and then through the press. She did so, despite tremendous personal risk, because she believed she owed it to the country she loves.”
In a statement, ICIJ director Gerard Ryle said, “The FinCEN Files revealed for the first time in forensic detail how powerful global banks knowingly profit from corruption and how authorities around the world allow the dark economy to flourish.
“Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards saw evidence of massive global wrongdoing and risked her freedom to make the public aware of both the misconduct and the numerous failures to thwart it. Her actions and our reporting have sparked unprecedented international reform.”
By Spencer Woodman, June 3, 2021, published on FinCEN