Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia investigation has been accused of secretly accessing the National Rifle Association’s tax records.
Legal experts say the move would be “routine” in this sort of investigation.
Prosecutors’ requests for tax information are usually made “entirely in the background, with no notice to the subject of the investigation,” explains lawyer David Axelrod. If Mueller is already poking into the NRA’s tax records, it would explain why the NRA has heard nothing from the FBI or any other law enforcement agency regarding its donations to Trump.
Obtaining access to the NRA’s donor list is key in determining whether Russia “used shell companies as a part of a scheme to influence the 2016 election,” said Democratic Senator Ron Wyden (OR). “Investigators must follow the money wherever it leads to understand the full story of Russia’s attack on our democracy."
Mueller’s probe in February indicted 13 Russian nationals and 3 companies for attempting to “sow discord” in the US political system, including the 2016 presidential election.
US intelligence agencies believe that Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential elections were designed to help Trump defeat opponent Hillary Clinton, whose criticism of Putin estranged Russia and whose stance on gun control made an enemy of the NRA.
Steve Hall, a former chief of the CIA’s Russia operations, has suggested that Russia was using the NRA as a link to the Trump campaign without the knowledge of NRA board members.
“That’s the most innocent explanation: the NRA got snookered,” said Hall, who retired from the CIA in 2015. “It’s just so insidious, and it sort of ticks all the boxes: connections to the current administration, major backer of then-candidate Trump, the Russians wanting to get in and manipulate our own political system.”
The NRA in April said it had received only $2,500 in contributions from Russia-linked individuals since 2015.
Why Muller would access the NRA's tax records:
The NRA donated a whopping $30 million to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. At least $21 million came from “dark money” donors - companies and individuals seeking to keep their donations private.
Mueller wants to know if some of that money came from the Russians, and is specifically looking into whether Putin ally Alexander Torshin arranged for money to be funneled through the NRA.
Torshin, who is deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, is also a lifetime NRA member who facilitated visits by NRA executives to Moscow in order to meet with a gun rights group he helped form.
Torshin was among the individuals sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in April for Russia’s controversial invasion of Eastern Ukraine as well as its meddling in the 2016 elections.
In the past, Torshin has been accused of laundering money for the Russian mob.
Why Mueller's access to the NRA's tax records is inappropriate:
Mueller has been accused of accessing the NRA’s tax records without the NRA’s permission and without a court order, but this appears to be legal.
When potential financial crimes are involved, no group can protect the identities of donors from an investigation. Prosecutors need only show “a reasonable cause to believe” that the tax information is relevant to the investigation in order to access information from the IRS.
FBI and IRS agents working together on follow-the-money investigations commonly use “secret subpoenas, tax orders, and other investigative techniques to collect an extraordinary amount of financial information without their targets even knowing that the information exists,” noted a former federal prosecutor who asked to remain anonymous.
The IRS requires all nonprofits to disclose the names of their donors on tax records, but perhaps this rule should be changed.
When a person or company makes a secret donation to any organization, they do not expect their names to be revealed to the opposition. Such exposure could be a death knell for any CEO or business that wants to keep its political opinions private.