By the time Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards stood before Judge Gregory Woods in a courtroom in Lower Manhattan last month, she had lost her job, her car, her home and had spent nearly three years on supervised release, awaiting a likely prison sentence.
In a bright blue sheath dress, she appeared calm and resolute. Her family had come to watch the hearing, and so had the BuzzFeed reporter, Jason Leopold, to whom she had leaked more than 2,000 sensitive government documents that, combined, are more than 14 times the length of “Moby-Dick.”
“Your Honor, I’m an Indigenous matriarch warrior whose spirit cannot be broken,” she said.
She explained how her upbringing as a member of an Algonquian tribe — where clan mothers were like the Supreme Court and chiefs like the presidents — gave her a unique understanding of the ideals of the U.S. government.
She explained how she had tried to go through proper whistleblower channels when she witnessed corruption within the Treasury Department and did not hide that she had also gone to the press. “I could not stand by aimlessly,” she said, “as this would have been a violation of my oath of office, which is also a federal crime.”
After she was sentenced to six months in federal prison, she and her family had lunch with Leopold, and she posed for a photo with the journalist at a Lower Manhattan bus stop. Leopold, 51, had a Mona Lisa-like expression. Edwards, 43, held her face in something between a faint smile and a grimace.
She is one of the most important whistleblowers of our era, and yet hardly anyone remembers her name.
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Despite recent noises from the Biden administration that it will stop pursuing the phone records and emails of journalists who publish unauthorized government information, there has been no apparent change from the previous administration’s hard-line stance on the civil servants who reveal those secrets.
Official whistleblower status remains narrowly defined and maddeningly difficult to achieve. Retaliation and alienation are practically fated for most who decide to speak out.
Meanwhile, some whistleblowers just seem to get more love than others. And some of that love seems to take time. Daniel Ellsberg, reviled when he was first revealed as the source of the Pentagon Papers, is being hailed as a folk hero upon the 50th anniversary of their publication. Edward Snowden is a household name, the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary and best-selling book. Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner became causes célèbres, while Jeffrey Wigand and Karen Silkwood became Hollywood heroes.
But Edwards — known to her friends as “May” — is largely unknown and mostly forgotten. She is scheduled to report to the Bureau of Prisons in August, and no celebrities are clamoring about the injustice on Twitter.
Or perhaps she just hasn’t had her moment yet.
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On Oct. 29, 2017, BuzzFeed published the first in a series of scoops by Leopold, based on leaks from Edwards — then a senior official in the Treasury Department’s division of financial crimes, known as FinCEN.
The story revealed the existence of 13 suspicious wire transfers involving offshore companies connected to Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, totaling more than $3 million.
It was a red-hot story — for almost exactly one day.
And then the news cycle rushed up over it like a tidal wave. On Oct. 30, Robert Mueller III, the special counsel probing possible collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and the Russian government, announced that Manafort had been charged with conspiracy to launder money, making false statements and other offenses stemming from his work advising a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
It took nearly a year for federal agents to show up at Edwards’ home outside Richmond, Va., led by their high-tech analysis of activity on government computers.
By then, Leopold had published a stream of Russia-related stories based on the confidential “suspicious activity reports” that banks are required to file with the Treasury Department whenever they spot a seemingly irregular transaction — one story on payments the Russian government sent its embassies with a label of “to finance election campaign of 2016” (Russia said it was just helping its overseas citizens cast absentee ballots for its own parliamentary elections); another outlining payments Russian operative Maria Butina used to ease her entry into GOP political circles.
But these, too, had largely been forgotten by the time Edwards was arrested, stories that only sizzled briefly in a season consumed by nonstop Trump scandals, uproars and investigations. Even some of Leopold’s other work — notably an investigative scoop about the Trump team’s secret negotiations during the 2016 campaign to erect a Trump Tower in Moscow — upstaged the stories generated that past year by Edwards’s leaks.
Prosecutors say that at first she denied to investigators that she had communicated with the media, but she quickly confessed that same day. And soon enough, they had her emails.
“I’m writing a story on Butina,” Leopold wrote to her one day in 2018, according to messages prosecutors later presented in court. “This will really (annoy) the senate because it’s based on (stuff) they could have had.”
The government alleged that this was Leopold’s warm-up banter before asking Edwards for more confidential files.
“Hummm let me see if I can search and find the folder,” she responded, promising to send them over. “Sorry if you asked me in the past for them.”
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In many ways, Edwards had the kind of inspiring backstory that might have ennobled her image as a whistleblower. Her father, a veteran of the Air Force; her mother, the product of a Virginia Chickahominy family that lived off the land until the late 1970s, selling pine cones for money to buy sugar and flour.
After her older sister was killed in a car accident, Edwards set about to heal the family’s wounds by becoming the “perfect daughter,” as her lawyers described in court, winning a partial softball scholarship to North Carolina Wesleyan College, then teaching high school science, among other jobs, while working toward a PhD.
The terrorist attacks of 2001 inspired her to join the federal workforce, and she served in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and later the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, before moving to the Treasury Department.
In its initial story about her 2018 arrest, The New York Times hinted that Edwards may have been “ideologically motivated” to leak suspicious-activity reports that were damaging to a Trump ally like Manafort: When she downloaded the reports, prosecutors said, she labeled the file “Debacle.”
But while conservatives were quick to label her as a “Deep State” traitor, her own politics guaranteed she would not be taken up as a lefty cause.
Until her arrest, she regularly shared posts on social media that mocked liberals. She publicly scoffed at the sexual misconduct allegations lodged against Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court justice. And she posted supportive messages about Trump’s false claims of election fraud. (Edwards told The Washington Post that some of those posts were made from a parody account and hinted that she may not have been their actual author.)
Another factor complicating her heroine narrative was the nature of her interactions with Leopold.
The two-time Pulitzer finalist and Emmy nominee is one of the most adept and prolific investigative reporters when it comes to deploying the Freedom of Information Act to pry data from the government; he has likened the feeling he gets when he extracts such tidbits to “a score.” (Sober for two decades and a mentor to other journalists in recovery, Leopold described his vanquished cocaine addiction in a memoir entitled “News Junkie.”)
Some missteps have made him a controversial figure in journalism: In 2019, he and a colleague reported that Trump ordered lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to investigators, a story that was ultimately not explicitly supported by Cohen’s own testimony.
Prosecutors leaned heavily on exchanges between Leopold and Edwards, excerpting from messages that suggested the relationship overstepped the traditional bounds of reporter and source.
“Can additional files from the list be sent so I can push the story forward a bit more?” Leopold wrote to her in January 2018, while at work on a follow-up story about Manafort. “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.”
In another email, he promised Edwards that “the reckoning is beginning” and that “it will result in the accountability you have sought. You and everyone else will be protected.”
In court filings, prosecutors alleged that Leopold sent Edwards his stories before publication, which he denies: “I never share drafts with sources,” he told The Post, noting that he merely outlined for her key facts a forthcoming story would reveal, under a principle of “no surprises.”
He also denied prosecutors’ claims that he set up meetings for her with members of Congress.
“She asked me for contact information for some staffers she wanted to speak with about waste, fraud and abuse,” he said, “and I gave it to her.”
Columbia Journalism Review reviewed the emails between Leopold and Edwards and raised questions about “how much reporters should expect from vulnerable sources” and whether journalists do enough “to make sure that these people are aware of the jeopardy they face when they disgorge massive volumes of confidential material.” (At one point, Edwards’ teenage daughter raised concerns about a big box of Treasury documents in their living room.)
But Mark Schoofs, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, defends Leopold’s approach. “Reporting requires more than just hoping that a huge pile of secret government documents lands in your inbox,” he said in a written statement to The Post. “Jason is a world-class journalist, and he dug for information that was vital to the public interest. We have never been prouder to work with him.”
Leopold was not on trial, of course. But investigative reporter James Risen, himself the longtime target of the government over his national security stories for The New York Times, suspects there’s a reason for prosecutors to selectively air these kinds of discussions, tinged as they are with flattery, cajoling and overpromising.
“Embarrass enough investigative reporters,” Risen wrote in April, “and maybe they will stop embarrassing the government.”
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Since she pleaded guilty in early 2020 — and began a long wait for sentencing delayed in part by the coronavirus pandemic — Edwards has suffered from the financial demands of her legal case and her loss of employment. Her husband retired from the Richmond police force, and they have lost their home, their car and their health insurance; her daughter had to give up her horse.
“We saw 14 months of a family’s life destroyed for telling the truth,” Edwards’ sister-in-law wrote to the judge.
And in perhaps the greatest cosmic indignity: Edwards wasn’t even charged in connection with her most important leak.
It wasn’t just another incremental update on Russiagate. It was the one that really mattered.
For that one, the justice system hasn’t even acknowledged her contribution.
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“I’m getting sick of my stuff not coming out,” Edwards wrote to Leopold in March 2018, according to court documents.
Fifteen months later, at a journalism conference in summer 2019, a BuzzFeed journalist would approach a reporter from the International Consortium of Journalists about how to handle massive data leaks, such as the ones that fueled ICJ’s groundbreaking Paradise Papers and Panama Papers exposing scandal in the world of offshore banking.
Their conversation would launch a team effort that would come to fruition in September 2020, with the publication of hundreds of stories involving 400 journalists in 88 countries.
Branded “The FinCEN Files,” they would tell the tale of how some of the world’s biggest banks facilitate international money laundering and corruption around the world — and how the U.S. government stood back and watched it happened.
By then, Edwards had been under arrest for nearly a year for her role in leaking information for what would prove to be much smaller stories. But “The FinCEN Files” was also based on documents she handed off to Leopold.
These stories forced greater scrutiny into international money laundering in Britain, Brussels and the United States, where lawmakers passed a measure banning anonymous shell companies. President Joe Biden hailed the bill as a significant tool in his administration’s effort to fight international corruption.
Why wasn’t Edwards charged in connection with that story? It’s tempting to speculate that the government found the FinCEN leaks to be nobler, more benign, or of greater public benefit than the Mueller investigation scoops.
But “the Justice Department seldom looks at the difference between nefarious leaker and whistleblower,” explained Matthew Miller, a former public affairs official at the Justice Department. Leaking is leaking, in other words.
Some supporters of Edwards, though, are hoping to prove a distinction — and make sure she finally gets some credit for the story that mattered.
At her sentencing, Judge Woods described Edwards’ leaks as “intentional” and “reckless.” But Schoofs, of BuzzFeed, recently called upon Biden to pardon Edwards, who “did more to bring transparency to the global financial system than almost anyone else in recent memory,” he wrote in The New York Times.
“FinCEN itself just announced that it’s making corruption a priority in its anti-money-laundering fight. I think it proves the power of our findings,” Leopold told The Post. “Locking up the person whose actions made all these changes possible is so wrong. … She deserves to be celebrated, not incarcerated.”
No one yet appears to be making the documentary or best-selling book about Edwards. But there’s some evidence her case is beginning to resonate. Roxanne Houman, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, recently read Schoofs’ opinion piece and went in search of a petition to sign in support of Edwards.
Houman didn’t find one, so she started her own. It recently collected its 500th signature.