Fusion GPS, the firm behind a controversial dossier on Donald Trump, paid journalists who reported on topics related to alleged Russian interference in the elections, court documents show.
The documents, filed in the District of Columbia by the deputy general counsel for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Scott Glabe, show that at least three journalists received payments from the company.
The House committee, currently investigating accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, is seeking the records of the payments. So far, Fusion GPS has refused to provide these.
The journalists in question have "reported or written on matters within the scope of the committee's investigation," the court documents show.
Fusion GPS was hired to produce a dossier on then-presidential candidate Trump in 2016. The company paid a former British MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, to write the dossier. Steele had previously been deployed to Russia.
Steele's 35-page report relies almost exclusively on Kremlin-linked sources. These include a senior Kremlin official, a senior Russian official in the Russian Foreign Ministry, and a former top-level Russian intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin.
On Oct. 24, The Washington Post revealed that the payments for the dossier came from the Clinton campaign and the DNC—something both had denied up to that point. Payments were routed through a law firm, Perkins Coie LLP, and mislabeled in FEC filings, allowing them to avoid detection.
Fusion GPS was co-founded by Glenn Simpson, a former journalist with The Wall Street Journal.
The company specializes in using media reporting to advance the interests of their clients. In the case of Trump, that meant spreading the unsubstantiated narrative that Trump colluded with the Russian government. The company has also represented a Russian-owned company seeking to overturn the 2012 Magnitsky Act.
"Fusion GPS understands how the media operates, how to kill a story, how to manufacture enough doubt to throw off a journalistic investigation, and what it takes for an editor to disqualify a journalist from pursuing a story," said Thor Halvorssen, president and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation, in a testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on July 26.
On its website, Fusion GPS says that it offers "a cross-disciplinary approach with expertise in media, politics, regulation, national security, and global markets."
Court documents from the UK, where Steele and his company are currently being sued for libel by a Russian businessman mentioned in the report, show that the former spy gave briefings to journalists on the contents of the dossier.
Steele’s defense attorney says in the court documents that Steele was instructed by Fusion GPS to brief reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, CNN, and Yahoo News on the contents of the dossier. The briefings were done in person and verbally.
Steele also “participated in further meetings at Fusion’s instruction with Fusion and The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Yahoo News,” the court documents say.
The House committee documents, however, contain the first revelations that the company made payments to journalists.
Fusion GPS's counsel, Joshua Levy, told The Epoch Times in a statement that the company does not pay journalists to write stories.
"They are not permitted to publish any articles based on that work, nor do we pay journalists to write stories," Levy said.
Instead, Levy said, the company sometimes works “with contractors that have specialized skills seeking public records under open-records laws."
However, according to the House committee, each of the journalists in question has written on matters pertinent to the Russia investigations.
"Given the clear relevance of journalists and researchers to Fusion GPS's activities of relevance to the committee's investigation, the requested records therefore include records related to nine payments to three additional journalists and/or researchers who have reported or written on matters within the scope of the committee's investigation," the court documents say.
The House committee points to the example of Yahoo News, whose reporter, after a briefing from Steele, wrote an article on allegations involving Trump campaign adviser Carter Page that were "substantively similar" to the allegations "contained in the dossier."
Page announced in September that he had filed a defamation lawsuit against Yahoo and the Huffington Post.
According to Fred Brown, vice chair of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Ethics Committee, reporters who were paid by Fusion GPS to conduct research should have included a "disclosure of their relationship with Fusion" if they did reporting on the same subject matter.
"It strikes me as ironic that this work involves journalists who are skilled in investigative reporting. It's the very sort of arrangement investigative reporters love to call attention to," Brown said in an email.
He said it would be an ethical problem in a scenario where journalists were directly paid to publish articles.
The SPJ Code of Ethics states that journalists should "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived," as well as "avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or damage credibility."
The House committee is also seeking records from Fusion GPS involving 12 transactions associated with "payments from Media Company A." However, the name of the media company in question is redacted, and the nature of the payments is unclear.
Impact of Fusion GPS Dossier
Following Steele's research for Fusion GPS, his reports were actively spread among Congress and media organizations, despite its findings not having been verified.
A representative of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) met with Steele to discuss the contents of the documents, according to the UK court documents.
McCain admitted in a statement in January to having personally delivered the document to then-FBI Director James Comey.
“I delivered the information to the director of the FBI,” McCain said in the statement published on Jan. 11.
The Washington Examiner reported on Nov. 19 that FBI and Department of Justice officials told congressional investigators that they have not been able to verify or corroborate the accusations of collusion outlined in the dossier.
The statements echo those of former director of national intelligence James Clapper, who oversaw a joint intelligence agency investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the election last year.
High-ranking Democrats, such as Senate judiciary committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have also said there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The narrative of collusion, however, has been widely reported as truth by many media organizations, as well as used by Trump’s political opponents in an attempt to discredit him.
Fusion GPS's Russia Connections
Simpson, who cofounded both Fusion GPS and investigative firm SNS Global, is alleged to have broken the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) with his previous work for a Russian-owned company.
A FARA complaint filed at the Department of Justice on July 15, 2016, alleged that Simpson was lobbying on behalf of Russian-owned Prevezon Holdings Ltd. to repeal the Magnitsky Act.
The complaint was filed by London-based investment company Hermitage Capital Management, whose CEO, William Browder, was instrumental to the passage of the Magnitsky Act in 2012.
The Magnitsky Act put sanctions on Russian officials, including a freeze on overseas assets, who were believed to have been involved in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after allegedly undergoing torture.
Magnitsky, who was hired by Browder, had allegedly uncovered a massive corruption scandal involving Russian officials. After giving testimony under oath, Magnitsky was arrested, detained, and eventually died in custody.
Russian authorities have sought for years to overturn the Magnitsky Act. In response to its passing, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning the adoption of Russian children by parents in the United States.
According to the FARA complaint, Simpson had "been hired by Prevezon to lobby for the anti-Magnitsky Campaign."
"Neither Glenn Simpson, SNS Global, or Fusion GPS has submitted any LDA or FARA filing in respect of its lobbying activities in relation to the anti-Magnitsky campaign, which is clearly seeking to influence U.S. public opinion on policy issues (namely to repeal the Magnitsky Act and derail the Global Magnitsky Act)," the document said. LDA is the acronym for the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which requires lobbyists to file quarterly reports with each house of Congress.
"There is a significant problem with under-enforcement of the law. Individuals who lobby and engage in political activities on behalf of foreign government and interests in the United States do not register in a way that works with the Justice Department," Feinstein said.
Another person accused back in July 2016 of failing to register as a foreign agent was Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who worked for Prevezon.
According to the document, Veselnitskaya played a key role in organizing a screening of a film intended to "rewrite the history of Sergei Magnitsky." She has also been active in Washington in an effort to get the act repealed.
"On information and belief, in doing so she is being directed by the Russian government, and therefore should be required to file under FARA,” the documents state.
Veselnitskaya is the lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower. Trump Jr. said that he had accepted the meeting because he believed she would provide potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton that could be useful during the campaign.
However, it appears that Veselnitskaya was conducting her lobbying work against the Magnitsky Act instead.
“We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow-up,” Trump Jr. said in a statement on July 8, after The New York Times reported on the meeting.
On Nov. 7, Fox News, citing a confidential source and court documents, reported that Veselnitskaya met with Simpson before and after her meeting with Trump Jr. in June 2016.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, requested information on July 11 on why Veselnitskaya was allowed to enter the United States without a visa.
In a letter requesting the information from the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, Grassley says that Veselnitskaya was granted a parole letter in 2015, after having initially been denied a visa, to participate in a court case in the United States.
The parole expired on Jan. 7, 2016, and a request for an extension was denied on Jan. 4, 2016.
“This raises serious questions about whether the Obama administration authorized her to remain in the country, and if so, why?” Grassley said in a statement.