A former Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) official who provided 2,100 suspicious activity reports (SARs) to BuzzFeed News—confidential banking documents that would form the basis of the explosive “FinCEN Files” investigation—will serve six months in prison.
Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a former senior advisor at FinCEN, was sentenced Thursday for unlawfully disclosing SARs to the media. She claimed she was a whistleblower who only went to the media after unsuccessfully pursuing whistleblower claims through legitimate channels at the U.S. Treasury.
Edwards, 43, was charged in 2018 with one count of unauthorized disclosures of SARs and one count of conspiring to unlawfully disclose SARs. She pled guilty to the latter in January 2020 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The other charge was dropped as part of her guilty plea.
“Maintaining the confidentiality of SARs, which are filed by banks and other financial institutions to alert law enforcement to potentially illegal transactions, is essential to permit them to serve their statutory function, and the defendant’s conduct violated the integrity of that critical system and the law,” said former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in a Department of Justice press release at the time of the plea.
Prosecutors said Edwards disclosed more than 50,000 confidential documents to BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold in 2017-18. The documents pertained to, among other things, former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, the Russian Embassy, admitted Russian spy Maria Butina, and alleged money launderer Prevezon Alexander.
BuzzFeed News and other media organizations used the documents to produce more than a dozen news stories.
The FinCEN Files investigation, when it was released last year, roiled the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) compliance community. At least, in part, because of the revelations from the investigation, Congress included several anti-money laundering provisions in its defense spending bill approved in late 2020, including a beneficial ownership registry and a BSA whistleblower program.
Edwards told the court she was a whistleblower who was attempting to uncover irregularities with the manner in which the U.S. Treasury handled intelligence information, according to a Politico story. She said she reported her concerns multiple times to authorities at FinCEN.
BuzzFeed News acknowledged for the first time Thursday that Edwards was the source of the documents for the FinCEN Files and other stories and sharply criticized the decision to send her to prison.
“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. She did so, despite tremendous personal risk, because she believed she owed it to the country she loves,” BuzzFeed News spokesperson Matt Mittenthal wrote in a statement included in a BuzzFeed story on the sentencing. “BuzzFeed News strongly supports the actions of whistleblowers and condemns efforts to prosecute them for bringing the truth to light.”
U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Woods said during the sentencing hearing that the documents Edwards disclosed had little or nothing to do with the issues she sought to expose as a whistleblower.
“Blowing the whistle is an incredibly important exercise,” the judge said, via Politico. “We’re not here because Dr. Sours Edwards blew the whistle. We’re here because, at some point, Dr. Sours Edwards decided to abuse her position of trust.”
Edwards was ordered to report to prison in August.