A court case reveals the dance between reporter and source

“I am asking you again to trust me,” the reporter wrote his source. “I am very good at my job.”

And, he added: “Get ready for prime time. The reckoning is beginning…. You and everyone else will be protected.” 

That reporter, BuzzFeed’s Jason Leopold, was right about a few things. He is good at his job. A reckoning was beginning. But he was wrong about this: His source—Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards—would not be protected.

After leaking thousands of documents to Leopold from her post at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), Edwards was arrested by the FBI in October 2018 and pleaded guilty last January. In the past few months, as part of the process to determine whether Edwards should go to prison, lawyers for the US Attorney and the defense have filed more than 100 pages of documents, which include many excerpts of text conversations she conducted with Leopold. 

The filings show the complex dance that can take place between reporter and source. Attorneys say that Leopold sent Edwards advance drafts of unpublished stories (against his employer’s own policies), arranged and attended meetings with her and congressional staff, and frequently nudged her to provide additional confidential documents, even as she was becoming careless with how she was handling that material.

Every reporter-source interaction is unique. Some sources are in it for revenge, while others are seeking justice, or just the quiet satisfaction that comes from knowing that they instigated an important story. To get the goods, reporters can deploy a mix of flattery or wheedling, subtle threats or promises of grandeur. What makes this case unusual is that such conversations rarely become public. Indeed, few editors ever see the negotiations that their reporters carry on. 

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Stephanie M. Carvlin, who is Edwards’ attorney, took the unusual step of highlighting her client’s ties to Leopold to bolster her argument for why the judge shouldn’t impose a prison term: “Through near constant contact with Dr. Edwards, Leopold fostered in her the belief that her cause was his cause, and that he was the route to bringing the attention needed to force change at FinCEN.” She called this “a more nuanced relationship … than is traditional between reporter and source. He told her that he was helping her pursue her goal of rooting out corruption and protecting national security.”

Edwards’ sentencing is scheduled for January 19. Prosecutors, saying that she initially lied to the FBI and tried to pin the blame on colleagues, want her to serve at least six months in prison.  (Neither Carvlin nor a spokesman for the Southern District US Attorney’s Office would comment for this story, citing the pending hearing.)

Two months ago, I looked into why BuzzFeed largely failed to tell its readers about Edwards’ legal travails—even though many outlets, including a BuzzFeed publishing partner, reported extensively about her case. Now, as then, there is no hint that Leopold did anything to reveal Edwards’ identity. Nor was Edwards an unwilling source, particularly when leaking Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), which financial institutions file to alert Treasury about transactions that might be tied to terrorism, money laundering or other crimes. As her attorney noted, Edwards “provided Jason Leopold with SARs of her own volition. He did not force her or trick her. He used the material to publish articles. She read the articles and provided more SARs.”

Still, Leopold’s close connections with Edwards, combined with his assurance that she “will be protected,” bring new light to old questions about how much reporters should expect from vulnerable sources, and how best to make sure that these people are aware of the jeopardy they face when they disgorge massive volumes of confidential material.

Edwards, who is in her early 40s, has an interesting history. She grew up in a house without electricity, and her family sold pine cones to raise money for food; she was, according to her lawyer, the first member of the Chickahominy Indian tribe to obtain a Ph.D. She was a longtime federal employee, having served at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence before arriving at Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, also known as FinCEN. 

As for Leopold, he and his BuzzFeed colleagues were Pulitzer finalists in 2018 for their reporting on assassinations of Vladimir Putin’s enemies. He’s also had some misfires—most recently, in January 2019, he had the lead byline on a story that claimed Trump had instructed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress; that elicited a rare public slapback from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, saying the report was “not accurate.” Over time, Leopold has attracted praise for his deft use of the Freedom of Information Act to pry documents from government agencies. 

Leopold and Edwards got in touch with each other in the summer of 2017, after Edwards had spent months trying to get federal officials and Congress interested in what she saw as wrongdoing within the Treasury Department. She soon began leaking hundreds of SARs, which were key to a year-long series of stories that Leopold and his colleagues began publishing in October 2017 about the Mueller investigation, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and others in the president’s orbit. 

The two were in frequent contact; Edwards’ attorney refers to more than 2,400 pages of WhatsApp text transcripts. And the relationship grew so close that, according to prosecutors, Leopold would send story drafts to Edwards, which in at least one case “she read and consulted on in advance of publication.”

That is an unusual practice, one prohibited by BuzzFeed’s own ethics policy, which states that its reporters contact a source “to describe how they are quoted in a story,” but “as a general rule, BuzzFeed writers are not permitted to have quotes approved by sources or share story drafts with their subjects.” Many other news organizations share that view;  the Washington Post, for example, says “it is against our policy to share drafts of entire stories with outside sources prior to publication, except with the permission–which will be granted extremely rarely–of the Executive or Managing Editors.” 

Matt Mittenthal, spokesperson for BuzzFeed News, said that neither Leopold nor the company would comment on the specifics of Edwards’ case until after sentencing. He also stated that BuzzFeed reporters “do not share unpublished story drafts with sources or subjects, though we do give them ample transparency about what we plan to report, as is standard for any credible news organization.” 

As reporters sometimes do, Leopold strategized with Edwards on ways to maximize attention to her cause. In January 2018, he had written one story about Manafort but wanted to do more. “Can additional files from the list be sent so I can push the story forward a bit more?” he asked. “I realize this is a big ask. No worries if too much. But I wanted to ask. The story needs to be that explosive to make the right amount of noise.”

And as he sought more material, he made more promises: 

I’ve asked you to trust me and you have which I have been very grateful for. I told you I would follow this through and do my best to get you attention, justice and accountability. Well, I am asking you again to trust me…. We are working with a producer on Tucker Carlson on a joint print/screen story. … I promise you I will not publish anything until you see it. But get ready for prime time. The reckoning is beginning. … I am very good at my job as I know you are at yours. I tried to work getting you the attn internally. But this is the way to go and it will result in the accountability you have sought. You and everyone else will be protected.

Leopold also told her that he had a direct line to US Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who felt that Treasury hadn’t been transparent enough. Edwards was grateful, as she wrote to Leopold:

You must be a surreal moment in your life right now. You have direct convention to a powerful Senator and he is asking when he can call you for more information. And he seeks guidance from you. You should be very proud of yourself! You are serving such a vital role for me and the American people. Your my voice. And we will seek Justice together.

Edwards occasionally wanted to reassure Leopold that her motives were patriotic: “This isn’t a political issue from my optics,” she wrote in October 2017. “I don’t care if they worship fucking goats, I am about the oath I took to the Cons. to protect the American people domestic and abroad.”

But as time went on, Edwards grew frustrated. In March 2018, she complained about the attention that an FBI whistleblower in a different case was getting. “I’m getting sick of my stuff not coming out,” she told Leopold. “Thx Jason but it’s crazy you have to lobby on behalf of a government employee who has evidence of crimes being committed.”

Despite Leopold’s stories, Edwards worried that Washington wasn’t taking her leaks seriously enough. “Until Congress deleivers [sic] me something I’m inclined not to share anymore shit,” she wrote Leopold in September 2018, shortly before her arrest. “I have yet to see anything concrete or they actually do anything for me other than meet. . . . It’s just been a long two years with no tangible benefit to me.”

Edwards was motivated by several factors, not the least of all revenge on her agency, FinCEN, which she thought had betrayed Congress and the American people: “I burned the town and crops cleared out all the livestock and now I’m ready to catch the water on fire. Nothing left but ash!” She also thought that she deserved compensation, prosecutors said. “We want momma name on court settlement papers,” possibly from a lawsuit seeking whistleblower damages, and “not on the front page of any news outlet … lol.”

And while Edwards used an encrypted app to deal with Leopold, she could be careless with documents. She saved some confidential files to a folder labeled “Debacle\Emails\Asshat;” prosecutors dryly noted that “there was no official FinCEN project or task bearing those titles.” She also told Leopold that her daughter, who was 12 or 13 years old at the time, had found confidential materials in their home, and asked, “mom is this suppose [sic] to be here in the house”?  Edwards told her that she was intentionally keeping the documents at home, prosecutors said, to which the girl responded, “Great… We have govt secrets in a big box in the middle of our floor.”

In any investigative story, a reporter has to take extra steps to ensure the safety of confidential sources, who usually stand to lose far more than journalists do. In Edwards’ case, she has already lost her federal job, her home, her reputation; her daughter even had to give up her horse, Diva. She has also become an active Twitter user, using the account name @WhyRUanId10t to retweet allegations that she was framed, or more recently, posts supportive of Trump’s baseless theories about election fraud.

We don’t have access to all 2,400 pages of messages between Leopold and Edwards, so we don’t know the entirety of what they told each other. But the excerpts we have come from both the US Attorney’s Office and the defense.

They are a reminder that in reporting sensitive stories, it’s important to remember that sources are not editors, who are entitled to vet unpublished articles. They are not clients, for whom journalists set up meetings with congressional staff. They are often officials with their own motives, which may blind them to the risks they are taking; and they are usually deeply committed to their own agendas, which may not align with those of a reporter who is seeking headlines.

As Carvlin wrote, “At his encouragement, she provided him with SARs and other internal Treasury Department documents. He wrote articles that disclosed that information. She was arrested. He was not.” That’s the way the law usually works, and we wouldn’t want a regime where reporters are at similar risk. We can hope that prosecutors working under a President Biden will be less prone to investigate leakers (or reporters) than those from his two predecessors. In the meantime, it’s vital for journalists to take every step to protect sources who risk their freedom for our stories. 

 

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Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).

TOP IMAGE: Natalie Edwards leaves Federal court on January 30, 2019. Frank Franklin II/AP Photo