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Monday, July 31, 2017

Following the money

New USA Today report on Russia investigation just spelled disaster for Trump 
BY BENJAMIN LOCKE 


Image result for follow the moneyPresident Trump has good reason to be afraid, very afraid, of where Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation set off by the collision with Russia may lead, according to an investigative report by USA Today. 

Under his mandate, Mueller can follow the story, and the money trail, where ever the investigation takes him, and increasingly that appears to be into the complex business dealings, especially real estate sales.

“Experts say,” reports USA Today, “Mueller’s move to follow the money has the potential to expose Trump, his family and his associates to legal troubles that go beyond election-year collusion with the Russians.” 

“It opens the door,” adds the report, “to revelations of any business-related malfeasance discovered during Mueller’s look at Trump’s business network.” 


In an interview with the New York Times on July 19, Trump said if Mueller’s investigation goes beyond the specifics of possible Russian interference in the election, that would be a “violation” of the agreement under which he was named Special Counsel.

However, the actual agreement written by Rod Rosenstein establishing the special counsel investigation is quite broad. It says that he s authorized to looking into any lines with Russia as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

Jack Blum, a former Senate staff lawyer not a Washington attorney specializing in white collar crime, told USA Today that Muller has to look at all kinds of financial transactions to see if there is a flow of money, and figure out where it is going and why.

Blum said, “real estate records and corporation records are likely to be of special interest to investigators, and likely would be more revealing than tax returns.”

Mueller is likely to also go after Trump’s tax returns, which he has refused to make public. It would require a court order in which the Special Counsel would have to show cause (meaning he has something already and wants more) before the IRS would release the returns, which could all be done in such a secretive way it is unclear if even Trump would know when it happens.

“You can’t really tackle the broader problems of corruption or crime without also being able to follow the money and get at the financing of those activities,” Mark Hays, an investigator for the nonprofit watchdog group Global Witness, told USA Today. 

Real estate deals are ripe for corruption because a lot of the sales, especially to wealthy foreigners, can be made through corporate shells that make it virtually impossible to know who is really buying the property.

Many times, foreigners are looking for a place to invest or park money gained from questionable sources, launder ill-begotten gains or hide unreported income from that person’s home country.

USA Today did an investigation last month which showed 70 percent of Trump Organization real estate sales since Donald Trump became president were done through shell companies, compared to only four percent before he took office. 

“The clear shift to those kinds of purchases,” reports USA Today, “which helps obscure the identities of the buyers, raise questions about the source of profits that ultimately flow to the President because he has not fully divested from his companies.”

John Tobon, deputy special agent for the Department of Homeland Security in Miami told USA Today that luxury real estate sellers who do not screen buyers closely can be charged with a crime, even if they can plead ignorance of the source of the money.

The law of conspiracy reaches pretty far and every person in the conspiracy doesn’t necessarily have to be clued in to all the details,” explained Tobon, speaking about money laundering in general. “So legally you’re exposed in these transactions if you don’t take that extra step of asking who is the person behind (the shell company).”

Trump’s companies have been caught up in similar conspiracy cases. In the 1990s the Treasury Department fined Trump’s company for not reporting gamblers who cashed out more than $10,000 in one day. The reporting is how the government seeks to prevent money laundering. 

Once Mueller and his team get into these records, there are all kinds of ancillary records relating to financing, mortgages, movement of money and more that can also provide them information to establish patterns which indicate a crime was committed.

So while Trump’s big problem is the threat of being caught colluding with Russia over the election, this case can end up moving far beyond that into areas where other kinds of financial crimes can be found and prosecuted. 

Remember, when the U.S. government went after bootlegger Al Capone in the 1930s, they were not able to prosecute him for making and selling alcohol illegally. They took him down for violations of the federal tax laws.

Trump isn’t as obvious a gangster as Capone was, but his company operates on a global scale involving billions of dollars and under a microscope it is highly likely things will be unearthed which violate some laws.

No wonder Trump is rumored to want to fire his loyal retainer Jeff Sessions so he can appoint a new Attorney General who will not recuse himself and will do his bidding to find a way to quash or limit the Special Counsel’s investigation.

If Trump does that, there would be a huge outcry from people on both sides of the political divide, and that could even lead to charges in a future impeachment case.

Trump isn’t there yet, but Mueller is working hard, and there is still a lot to find out.



BENJAMIN LOCKE IS A RETIRED COLLEGE PROFESSOR WITH AN UNDERGRADUATE DEGREE IN INDUSTRIAL LABOR AND RELATIONS FROM CORNELL UNIVERSITY AND AN MBA FROM THE EUROPEAN SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT.