Ex-Treasury employee gets prison for leaks on Trump campaign officials

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former senior U.S. Treasury Department employee who pleaded guilty to conspiring to give a reporter sensitive information about Donald Trump’s onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort and others was sentenced on Thursday to six months in prison.

Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a former senior adviser in Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods in Manhattan.

Edwards was accused of making unauthorized disclosures of suspicious activity reports (SARs) – used by banks to alert law enforcement to potential money laundering and other crimes – to a BuzzFeed News reporter using an encrypted messaging program.

Prosecutors said the more than 2,000 reports leaked over one year concerned Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, who both oversaw Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, as well as the Russian embassy in Washington and other individuals.

The reports were a basis for articles concerning former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Edwards, 43, of Quinton, Virginia, had sought no prison time, after being charged in October 2018 and pleading guilty in January 2020.

Before being sentenced, she called herself a whistleblower who went to the media after uncovering suspicious conduct elsewhere at the Treasury Department.

Citing principles from her American Indian background, she said before being sentenced she could not “stand by” in silence, but apologized for her disclosures.

Woods said “blowing the whistle through proper channels is an incredibly valuable exercise,” but that Edwards went too far by disclosing about 50,000 records, including the SARs.

“Dr. Sours Edwards decided to abuse her position of trust,” he said.

Federal prosecutor Kimberly Ravener said Edwards’ “rampant disclosure of private information” was “unparalleled” in FinCEN history, and could have a chilling effect on banks’ willingness to file detailed SARs.

“She claimed that she followed procedure. But she made up her own,” Ravener said.

Edwards was also sentenced to three years supervised release. The BuzzFeed reporter, Jason Leopold, was not accused of wrongdoing. He embraced Edwards after meeting her outside the courthouse following the sentencing.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan McDermid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. delays Chinese investment ban’s impact on certain firms

By Susan Heavey and Alexandra Alper

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday updated its ban on investments in certain Chinese military companies by delaying until May the application of the directive’s restrictions on companies with names similar to those that have been blacklisted.

In a statement posted on the U.S. Treasury Department website, the Biden administration said most investments in companies “whose name closely matches, but does not exactly match, the name of a Communist Chinese military company” would be allowed until May 27, extending the deadline which was originally set to Jan. 28.

The order does not authorize securities transactions with subsidiaries of banned Chinese military companies, it added.

In November, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration moved to prohibit U.S. investments in Chinese companies that Washington said were owned or controlled by the Chinese military in an effort to ramp up pressure on Beijing.

The order required U.S. investors to completely divest their holdings in the firms by Nov. 11, 2021 and was seen as part of a bid by Trump to cement his tough-on-China legacy.

The blacklist of alleged Chinese military companies was mandated by a 1999 law but the Defense Department only began complying by publishing names of the firms last year. The catalogue now includes 44 companies including China’s top chipmaker SMIC and oil giant CNOOC.

Questions have swirled as to how the Biden administration will handle the tough new sanctioning tool but it has so far declined to provide any insight.

Beijing has said the United States lacks evidence and described the ban as wanton oppression of its companies.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Lisa Lambert, Catherine Evans and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. hits Iran with fresh sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Tuesday blacklisted a Chinese company that makes elements for steel production, 12 Iranian steel and metals makers and three foreign-based sales agents of a major Iranian metals and mining holding company, seeking to deprive Iran of revenues.

In a statement, the U.S. Treasury Department named the China-based company as Kaifeng Pingmei New Carbon Materials Technology Co Ltd. (KFCC), saying it specialized in the manufacture of carbon materials and provided thousands of metric tonnes of materials to Iranian steel companies between December 2019 and June 2020.

Among the 12 Iranian companies blacklisted are the Pasargad Steel Complex and the Gilan Steel Complex Co, both of which were designated under Executive Order 13871 for operating in the Iranian steel sector.

The others are: Iran-based Middle East Mines and Mineral Industries Development Holding Co (MIDHCO), Khazar Steel Co, Vian Steel Complex, South Rouhina Steel Complex, Yazd Industrial Constructional Steel Rolling Mill, West Alborz Steel Complex, Esfarayen Industrial Complex, Bonab Steel Industry Complex, Sirjan Iranian Steel and Zarand Iranian Steel Co.

The Treasury said it was also designating MIDHCO’s Germany-based subsidiary GMI Projects Hamburg GmbH, its China-based World Mining Industry Co Ltd and U.K.-based GMI Projects Ltd for being owned or controlled by MIDHCO.

“The Trump Administration remains committed to denying revenue flowing to the Iranian regime as it continues to sponsor terrorist groups, support oppressive regimes, and seek weapons of mass destruction,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Daphne Psaledakis and Doina Chiacu; writiing by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. imposes fresh sanctions on Syria in push for Assad to end war

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Tuesday slapped fresh sanctions on Syria, targeting its central bank and blacklisting several people and entities in a continued effort to cut off funds for President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The latest action, building on sanctions imposed on Syria earlier this year, marked another round in a U.S. campaign to push Assad’s government back into U.N.-led negotiations to end the country’s nearly decade-long war.

In a statement, the U.S. Treasury Department said the new sanctions add two individuals, nine business entities and the Central Bank of Syria to Washington’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.

The U.S. State Department also designated Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of the Syrian president, accusing her of impeding efforts for a political resolution to the war, and several members of her family, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. Asma al-Assad was previously hit with sanctions in June.

Millions of people have fled Syria and millions more have been internally displaced since a crackdown by Assad on protesters in 2011 led to civil war with Iran and Russia backing the government and the United States supporting the opposition.

Syria has been under U.S. and European Union sanctions that have frozen foreign-held assets of the state and hundreds of companies and individuals. Washington already bans exports to Syria and investment there by Americans, as well as transactions involving oil and hydrocarbon products.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Lisa Lambert Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. imposes fresh Iran-related sanctions, targets Khamenei-linked foundation

By Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday imposed sweeping new sanctions targeting Iran, blacklisting a foundation controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and taking aim at what Washington called Iran’s human rights abuses a year after a deadly crackdown on anti-government demonstrators.

The sanctions announced by the U.S. Treasury Department, which also targeted Iran’s intelligence minister, marked the latest action to reinforce the “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran pursued by President Donald Trump’s administration. They came just over two months before Trump is due to leave office after his Nov. 3 election loss.

The department imposed sanctions on what it described as a key patronage network for Khamenei. It said it blacklisted the Bonyad Mostazafan, or the Foundation of the Oppressed, which is controlled by Khamenei, in the move also targeting 10 individuals and 50 entities associated with the foundation in sectors including energy, mining and financial services.

The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the targeted individuals and entities and generally bar Americans from doing business with them.

The charitable foundation – an economic, cultural, and social welfare institution – has amassed vast amounts of wealth to the detriment of the rest of the Iranian economy and controls hundreds of companies and properties confiscated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“Iran’s Supreme Leader uses Bonyad Mostazafan to reward his allies under the pretense of charity,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.

“The United States will continue to target key officials and revenue-generating sources that enable the regime’s ongoing repression of its own people,” Mnuchin added.

Trump, who has taken a hard line toward Tehran during his presidency and abandoned an international nuclear agreement with Iran reached by his predecessor Barack Obama, last week asked for options on attacking Iran’s main nuclear site, but ultimately decided against taking the step, a U.S. official said on Monday.

The Treasury Department also slapped sanctions on Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, accusing his ministry of playing a role in serious human rights abuses against Iranians, including during last year’s protests.

VIOLENT CRACKDOWN

The crackdown a year ago may have been the bloodiest repression of protesters in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

Reuters reported last year that about 1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on Nov. 15, 2019. The toll, provided to Reuters by three Iranian interior ministry officials, included at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women as well as some members of the security forces and police.

Iran’s Interior Ministry has said around 225 people were killed during the protests, which erupted after state media announced that gas prices would rise by as much as 200% and the revenue would be used to help needy families.

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday also blacklisted two Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials, accusing them of involvement in the killing of nearly 150 people in the city of Mahshahr during last year’s crackdown. The action bars them and their immediate families from traveling to the United States.

Rights groups said they believe Mahshahr had one of the highest protest death tolls, based on information they received from local residents. The State Department said as many as 148 civilians were killed there.

“Nations who believe in supporting the freedoms of expression and association should condemn Iran’s egregious human rights violations, and reaffirm respect for the dignity and human rights and fundamental freedoms of every person by imposing consequences on the regime as we have, today,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a separate statement.

Reuters was the first to report that sanctions on Iranians involved in the crackdown against anti-government demonstrations were expected as early as this week.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen since Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from the 2015 deal under which Tehran agreed to restrict its nuclear program in return for relief from American and other sanctions. Trump restored harsh U.S. economic sanctions designed to force Tehran into a wider negotiation on curbing its nuclear program, development of ballistic missiles and support for regional proxy forces.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, set to take office on Jan. 20, has previously said he would return the United States to the nuclear deal, if Iran resumes compliance.

Some analysts have said that the piling-on of additional U.S. sanctions by Trump’s administration appeared to be aimed at making it harder for Biden to re-engage with Iran after taking office.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. unfreezing Venezualan assets to help opposition fight COVID-19: Guaido

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition said on Thursday the United States has granted it access to millions of dollars of frozen Venezuelan government funds to support efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The U.S. Treasury Department had approved the release of the funds, the opposition said in a statement without specifying the total amount.

The statement said part of the released funds would go to pay some 62,000 health workers $300. During a live appearance on Twitter on Thursday night, opposition leader Juan Guaido said health workers could register accounts to receive payments of $100 a month starting Monday.

Healthcare workers in Venezuela can earn as little as $5 a month.

Guaido first announced the additional support for healthcare workers four months ago, but distribution required a permit from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), as the frozen funds were held by the New York Federal Reserve.

The opposition plans to distribute the funds using AirTM, a digital payment platform, but on Thursday, the website was blocked in Venezuela.

“You have to be very bad to block an account for men and women who are giving everything with conviction to protect our people when they are going to receive a bonus,” said Guaido.

The opposition leader added healthcare workers would be sent a manual with the steps to download a virtual private network (VPN) so they could circumvent the restrictions. AirTM also tweeted instructions how to use a VPN.

Guaido has been recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s rightful president after assuming an interim presidency in 2019 on the grounds that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent.

In July, the opposition obtained permission to distribute $17 million in funds frozen in the United States that would be channeled through international health organizations to purchase supplies for medical workers.

The license also approves another $4.5 million to support Venezuelans at risk of death, an opposition press release said.

Venezuela is suffering economic collapse and its crumbling health system has so far registered 37,567 cases of COVID-19 and 311 deaths, although experts say the number is likely to be higher due to widespread insufficient testing.

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. Treasury to start distributing $4.8 billion in pandemic funds to tribal governments

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department will begin distributing $4.8 billion in pandemic-relief funds to Native American tribal governments in all U.S. states on Tuesday, the Treasury and Interior Departments said in a joint statement.

Payments would begin Tuesday to help the tribes respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak, based on population data in U.S. Census figures, the statement said, while payments based on employment and expenditure data would be made at a later date.

Amounts calculated for Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional and village corporations, for-profit businesses that serve tribal villages in Alaska, would be held back until pending litigation relating to their eligibility was resolved, they said.

The decision frees up about 60% of the $8 billion in funds earmarked for Native tribes in the CARES Act, after delays caused by a legal dispute among the nation’s native populations over who is entitled to the aid.

Some tribes in the lower 48 states had sued to say the Alaska tribal corporations were not eligible for the aid since they were not tribal governments.

The Treasury and Interior departments have decided to proceed with disbursing some of the aid while the litigation continues.

Native tribes have been seriously impacted by the outbreak, with the Navajo Nation, which resides in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, trailing only the hardest-hit states New Jersey and New York in terms of the highest infection rate, according to Bettina Ramon, with the People for the American Way think-tank.

Health disparities, higher rates of poverty and a lack of insurance make tribal groups especially vulnerable, she said, noting casinos, a big source of income in some Native communities, were also omitted from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Treasury would distribute the remaining 40% of the $8 billion based on the total number of persons employed by the Native tribes and any tribally-owned entity, the statement said, as well as the amount of higher expenses faced by the tribe in the fight against the virus.

Treasury would work with the tribes to confirm employment numbers and seek additional information regarding higher expenses due to the public health emergency.

The pending litigation had introduced additional uncertainty into the process of making payments to the tribes, but Treasury said it was working to “make payments of the remaining amounts as promptly as possible consistent with the Department’s obligation to ensure that allocations are made in a fair and appropriate manner.”

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Editing by Franklin Paul and Bernadette Baum)

White House to hold call with banks as hundreds struggle to access small business loans

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House was due to speak with banks on Tuesday, as the administration’s $350 billion program to support ailing businesses continued to confront hurdles, with some of the nation’s largest lenders sitting on the sidelines and others unable to access the system.

As of Tuesday, Citibank  said it was still not accepting loan applications under the program, which began on Friday, while Wells Fargo & Co , which has capped lending under the program at $10 billion, said it had yet to distribute any funds to clients.

The Small Business Administration (SBA), which is jointly administering the program with the U.S. Treasury Department, had not yet launched a promised online system for taking on lenders that have never previously registered with the agency, according to the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).

“That’s an issue if you’re a non-SBA lender, which is more than half of the lenders out there,” said Paul Merski, an executive vice president at the ICBA.

He said lenders are also still waiting for the administration to produce a compliant loan authorization form which would help speed up the distribution of funds, although he said guidance issued by the Treasury late on Monday night had helped to address some other issues with the program.

A top White House economic adviser, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, said on Tuesday that $50 billion in loans had been originated. However, it remained unclear how much of that money has been distributed since paperwork issues are holding up disbursements at some banks, according to industry sources.

Representatives for the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration did not respond to a request for comment. On Monday, the agency defended its progress, saying the program was unprecedented and pointing out that billions in loans had been authorized by the SBA in a very short time.

Launched on Friday as part of a $2.3 trillion congressionally approved economic relief package to combat the disruption caused by the novel coronavirus, the program got off to a rocky start as the administration rushed to get funds out the door in days without establishing key terms and paperwork.

Speed is critical, since half of small businesses have less than a two-week cash capital buffer. But the resulting confusion, bottlenecks and technology glitches have sparked widespread frustrations among bankers and businesses alike and left the U.S. Treasury and the SBA scrambling to fix the problems on the fly.

“You couldn’t have scripted a better #trainwreck for our nations community banks and the small biz customers we serve!” Brad Bolton, president and chief executive of Community Spirit Bank in Alabama, tweeted on Monday night.

The SBA overnight authorized 30 loans out of hundreds Bank of the West has been trying to process, Cynthia Blankenship, who runs the lender’s operation in Grapevine, Texas, told Reuters.

“We are continuing to be inundated with requests,” she said, adding that many of those are from companies turned away by their big lenders, including Wells Fargo, which has said it is constrained by a regulatory cap on its balance sheet.

Multiple small business owners took to Twitter over the past 24 hours to flag a document they had received from Wells, one of the biggest small business lenders in the country, advising potential applicants to reach out to other banks “to improve your chances of receiving a loan before the funds run out.”

Prominent lawmakers including Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Chris Van Hollen also jumped into the fray on Tuesday, raising worries that less savvy small businesses without existing bank lending relationships will be shut out of the program.

With banks and their trade groups warning that funds will run out way before the June 30 application deadline, and with worries over an unfair distribution of the cash, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said on Monday he hoped to quickly authorize a further $200 billion for the program.

Republican President Donald Trump was scheduled to talk with top executives of major banks, including JPMorgan & Co In  and Goldman Sachs Group Inc, and Independent Community Bankers of America members on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the program, according to industry sources.

“We’re calling to make the system more robust, and are supporting additional appropriations for this. … We want to make sure there’s a geographic dispersion to all areas of the program,” said the ICBA’s Merski.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; additional reporting by Imani Moise and Ann Saphir; Editing by Michelle Price, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump says he is withdrawing earlier North Korea-related sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands before their one-on-one chat during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said he was ordering the withdrawal of recently announced North Korea-related sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

“It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large-scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea,” Trump said on Twitter. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”

It was not immediately clear what sanctions Trump was referring to. There were no new U.S. sanctions on North Korea announced on Friday but on Thursday the United States blacklisted two Chinese shipping companies that it said helped North Korea evade sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders did not specify which sanctions Trump spoke of but said: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim (Jong Un) and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

The sanctions on the Chinese shippers were the first since the second U.S.-North Korea summit broke down last month. Hours after the sanctions announcement, North Korea on Friday pulled out of a liaison office with the South, a major setback for Seoul.

North Korea said it was quitting the joint liaison office set up in September in the border city of Kaesong after a historic summit between leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in early last year.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; writing by David Alexander; editing by Tim Ahmann and Bill Trott)