The Campaign Spot

After O’Donnell, Recalling that Forgotten, Fruitless Investigation of Steele

It is quite possible that absolutely nothing will come of the reported FBI investigation of Christine O’Donnell’s campaign finances. We have a recent, quite comparable example, in a neighboring state.

Back in spring of 2009, almost immediately after Michael Steele became chairman of the Republican National Committee, the Washington Post hit him with a page one story stating that the FBI was examining unverified claims from the finance chairman of his Senate campaign, alleging payments to his sister, Monica Turner, for work that wasn’t performed.

As you noticed, Steele was never indicted, nor was there ever any word of prosecutors taking the case before a grand jury. To briefly summarize, the allegation would require us to believe that Steele schemed to divert $37,000 in campaign funds to his sister, a pediatrician who had considerable income and assets from her divorce settlement from boxer Mike Tyson, the sale of a mansion for $4.1 million, and a business consulting firm, Brown Sugar Unlimited. The payment to her company occurred in February 2007; so if the aim of the alleged scheme was to shift Steele’s campaign funds to his own pocket through his sister, the unusual allegation would contend that a figure with a full-time job and Fox News compensation, heading up a prominent Republican 527, with ambitions to run for political office again, allegedly engaging in fraud to divert about $37,000 – an extraordinary risk for a relatively meager reward.

The claims came from a dubious source, the finance chair of Steele’s 2006 run, Alan B. Fabian, who offered the allegations to federal prosecutors in an effort to get leniency in sentencing for fraud charges in an unrelated case. Despite the information, Fabian’s sentence was unchanged.

In April 2009, I spent quite a bit of time trying to nail down how far the FBI investigation had moved, probably irking RNC figures quite a bit in the process. Ultimately, there was little evidence that the Bureau’s investigation gathered anything of substance. At the time, I asked RNC spokesman Trevor Francis whether Steele had received a target or subject letter, whether he talked to the FBI, or hired a lawyer to handle any potential inquiry. Francis emailed in response, “the premise and the rumors are piles of [excrement]. There is no truth to any of it.” Francis later added that the answer to each of the inquiries was “no.”

Special Agent Richard Wolf, the FBI’s Baltimore field office’s media coordinator, told me at the time he wouldn’t characterize the state of any investigation with Steele, but said, “A lot of times these things don’t wind down quickly and easily . . . If we close a case, we may tell the figures involved, but we don’t necessarily issue a press release — it just kind of slowly dies down.”

There is no guarantee that any FBI investigation will ever result in an indictment; investigators can determine there’s insufficient evidence that a crime was committed, or a grand jury can come to the same conclusion. What we know about the investigation of Steele stemmed from a U.S. Attorney’s office staffer “accidentally” mailing Fabian’s defense sentencing memorandum filed under seal to a Washington Post reporter, right around the time Steele was running for RNC Chair. At the time, I speculated that in the aftermath of striking revelations about prosecutorial misconduct in the Ted Stevens case, one cannot dismiss the possibility that someone wanted to make a name for themselves by prosecuting the chairman of the GOP.

Today, the description of the investigation of O’Donnell matches that early description of that investigation of Steele. “The criminal probe is being conducted by two federal prosecutors and two FBI agents, an anonymous source told the AP. The matter has yet to be referred to a grand jury.”

The Department of Justice’s policy is to advise a grand jury witness of his or her rights if such witness is a “target” or “subject” of a grand jury investigation. A “target” is a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant. A “subject” of an investigation is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s investigation.

If a U.S. Attorney contacts O’Donnell, the investigation is going somewhere; until then, it’s just breathless speculation.


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