Pineapple Street Studios and BuzzFeed News bring you this five-part series investigating how the most powerful banks in the world facilitate the worst of humanity — terrorism, human trafficking, the drug trade — all in plain sight of the government.
In Episode 1, BuzzFeed News gains access to a trove of documents, launching the biggest reporting project in the newsroom’s history.
Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files
A five-part podcast investigation into how the most powerful banks in the world facilitate the worst of humanity.
Listen now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Azeen Ghorayshi So Jason, I have a really easy first question for you. Um, can you explain what this story is?
Jason Leopold Well, what is this story? This is a story that’s actually been almost three years in the making. And it relies heavily on documents that shows us that oligarchs, drug kingpins, terrorists, and prominent officials have been engaged in what appears to be a years long effort to launder money all across the globe.
Azeen Ghorayshi I know. You’re gonna need more context.
Azeen Ghorayshi I’m Azeen Ghorayshi … I’m a reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News … and this story that my co-worker Jason Leopold and a whole bunch of others at BuzzFeed have been working on … they keep saying it might be the biggest story of their lives. But it’s a little hard to describe. Here’s the project’s editor Ariel Kaminer.
Ariel Kaminer To me this is a story about uh, about how, hmm … what is this story?
Anthony Cormier It is the story of how the most powerful banks in the world are doing business with the worst of humanity, helping them move their money around the globe and making a tidy profit for themselves and their shareholders.
Azeen Ghorayshi That’s BuzzFeed News reporter Anthony Cormier.
Anthony Cormier This is a story based on government documents that have never been revealed before. It's a story about dirty money. And how, with the help of the big global banks, that dirty money gets clean.
Azeen Ghorayshi Here’s how it works.
Ariel Kaminer People take money that is really, really dirty from the worst kinds of for-profit transactions that exist from terror financing to narco trafficking to arms dealership to all kinds of illegal activity, human trafficking. And they funnel it into what we think of as the legitimate economy.
Azeen Ghorayshi So the money made off of all that nefarious activity? … It’s not off in the black market in a back alley somewhere … it’s coursing through the same banks you and I use. And funding industries in every corner of the economy … in countries all over the world. And as Jason and Anthony ended up seeing firsthand: the banks regularly inform the government that suspicious money is flowing through them.
Ariel Kaminer That’s shocking enough, but the most shocking is that the United States government has all of the evidence in its possession. They know how rotten the system is and they let it keep happening. Because, this, what we sometimes call the dark economy, these rivers of dirty money that are coursing through the U.S. economy, that dark economy is SO BIG that in a very real sense, the dark economy IS the legitimate economy.
Azeen Ghorayshi The dark economy … is the economy.
What Ariel is saying is that the financial system that allows you to walk to the corner store and buy a bag of chips with your credit card is also pulsing with money from the worst actors in the world.
That dirty money … stolen money, money that has funded terrorists … it’s all swimming together in our banking system. Banks track suspicious money as it flows into their accounts … and then.. as it flows OUT again to fund all kinds of bad activity in the world … and the banks profit from it.
And we know from the government documents that BuzzFeed News has received … that the government knows it’s there, too … they allow the dark economy to flourish … and no one is doing what it would take to stop it.
From Pineapple Street Studios and BuzzFeed News, this is Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files.
Over 5 episodes, we’re going to break down and explain what this story is, let you peer into these government documents that number in the thousands, explore the massive implications of what it means to have all this dirty money flowing through the world economy, and take you behind the scenes with my colleagues at BuzzFeed News as they reported it.
This is Episode 1. The Documents.
Azeen Ghorayshi We’re going to get into the specifics of how this all works in this episode … but before we do that, it’s worth knowing a little bit more about the two primary reporters on this story – Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold.
I'm gonna start with Jason. He's been an investigative reporter for 25 years. Before he came to BuzzFeed News, he'd been at Vice News, Al-Jazeera, and the news website Truthout. Always working on breaking big, seemingly impossible-to-get stories ... torture at Guantanamo, on the Enron scandal ... one story on how the US Air Force used religious material to train officers."
… and as a young reporter, Jason loved the work.
Jason Leopold I love the rush. I love the rush of breaking news, of breaking a story, of being first. It was very much like cocaine to me. Which I also used to love.
Azeen Ghorayshi Early in his career, Jason got that rush from chasing sources. Hearing something before anyone else did.
But that kind of reporting can be risky. Sources can be wrong, as Jason learned the hard way when a source gave him misleading information … and he published it. As he matured as a journalist, and got sober which he has been for decades, he moved away from trying to get people to tell him things, and started looking for hard, irrefutable evidence: government documents.
He became an expert in prying them loose, with the help of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
Jason is so relentless — and so intolerant of the bullshit excuses that government offices give for not handing over the goods — that he’s become the nation’s foremost FOIA journalist. The FBI once referred to him as a FOIA terrorist in an inter-agency email.
He personally files more FOIA lawsuits than pretty much any other *entire news organization* in the country – he’s neck and neck with the New York Times. Through the Freedom of Information Act, he’s obtained documents that showed how prisoners at Guantanamo were force fed … and revealed how the CIA justified the killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. The reason we know any of the details of Hillary Clinton’s emails, even if you disagree with how they were spun, is because Jason fought for them... on principle.
But FOIA has also allowed Jason to get information about very important subjects. Like did the secret service actually visit Eminem over lyrics about President Trump? In his song “The Ringer” … Eminem mentioned that they had.
MUSIC (EMINEM THE RINGER CLIP)
Jason Leopold So I just fired off a request, a Freedom of Information Act request to the Secret Service to see if they had any records on Eminem. Well a year later, I ended up with these records from the Secret Service, which were unbelievable. And these were records that showed that the Secret Service investigated Eminem over what they perceived to be threatening lyrics mentioning President Trump and Ivanka in the trunk of a car.
But these records disclosed how the Secret Service went to visit Eminem and interviewed him and they start questioning Eminem. And then one of the agents, and this is how it’s disclosed in the document, one of the agents decides to recite the lyrics to one of his songs that they believed was threatening. And as they were reading it, and it says in the documents, Eminem began to rap along. He just started rapping with them. And that’s what it says in the documents, and I was like... I had to read it twice, because it was such an amazing image.
MUSIC (EMINEM FRAMED CLIP)
Azeen Ghorayshi OK so that’s Jason.
Anthony Cormier is Jason’s reporting partner at BuzzFeed News. He has as many tattoos as Jason … which is a lot. He got into reporting when he walked into the Panama City News Herald in his early twenties and said, “Hire me, I’m a good writer!” They gave him a job on the loading dock instead.
Azeen Ghorayshi Eventually he wrote a feature that impressed his editors and he continued to work his way up. In 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times, Anthony won a Pulitzer Prize as part of a team of reporters looking into how drastic cuts to Florida’s mental health system resulted in unsafe institutions, where patients and staff were injured and even died.
Anthony and Jason both started at BuzzFeed News at a crazy moment, in January 2017, just as Donald Trump was about to take office. The news cycle was an unending four-alarm fire. Like … on Anthony’s second day on the job:
Anthony Cormier Kinda late in the day and there was a flurry of activity in the far corner of the room. And I’m new. I’m not getting involved in any of that business.
Azeen Ghorayshi And that happens. That's like a common occurrence.
Anthony Cormier Yeah, it happens in newsrooms
Azeen Ghorayshi You're like, is it a llama chase? Or is it a breaking news event of national importance?
Anthony Cormier Yeah, I remember I was on Twitter I think and got a push alert. And clicked on a link. And was reading a BuzzFeed story, and I looked up and one of my colleagues was still there and I said, “What the fuck am I reading?” And it was the dossier.
Azeen Ghorayshi This is day two.
Anthony Cormier It’s my second day of work and BuzzFeed News published the dossier.
Azeen Ghorayshi This of course is the Steele dossier – compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, full of explosive — and unproven — allegations that the Russian government had compromising information on then candidate Donald Trump.
Anthony Cormier You have to remember that at the time, there was a lot of speculation about whether or not frankly the President was an asset of the Russian government, the Kremlin. You had former intelligence officials on CNN every day saying it was true.
Azeen Ghorayshi Anthony and Jason hadn’t planned it, but it was now clear they were going to be covering what they called the Money Trail: Trump, his messy business dealings, and Russia.
Anthony Cormier What are you asking me to do? I don’t speak Russian. I don’t have any sources in this world.
Jason Leopold I started just sending out messages. And I sent out hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of messages.
Azeen Ghorayshi Anthony and Jason figured, if Trump is operating illegally, there’s a good chance there’d be evidence somewhere within a government agency you probably never heard of. A bureau within the US Department of Treasury called FinCEN.
Jason Leopold FinCEN is the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. They are the regulatory agency within Treasury as well as the law enforcement agency within Treasury that has oversight of the banks. And their job is to ensure that these banks report any suspicious financial transactions, ah, so they could combat money laundering, terrorist financing, and illicit financial transactions that are taking place in the US banking system.
Azeen Ghorayshi Jason and Anthony dove head first into their Trump reporting. It was hard going, but then ... they got access to some unusual documents. Documents they never thought they or any other reporter would ever lay their eyes on.
Anthony Cormier Some of them were cut off. Some of them you could tell were only half of the thing that we were supposed to have, they were simply a couple of lines. And I was told that these are some of the most sensitive documents that you can have in the financial world.
Azeen Ghorayshi And what kind of documents were these?
Anthony Cormier These were the first suspicious activity reports that we received.
Azeen Ghorayshi Suspicious Activity Reports. If I’ve lost your attention at all, now is the time to pay attention. Because Suspicious Activity Reports … they are at the center of this story about illicit dark money that flows through our banks. You know how Jason and Anthony said at the top that their reporting for this gigantic story was based on secret government documents? … These are those government documents.
These reports are filed to the Treasury Department … to FinCEN, specifically … and after they’re filed *no one* outside law enforcement and financial intelligence agencies and approved members of Congress is ever supposed to know about them. You can’t subpoena them in most legal proceedings. If you’re the subject of one, you’re never even supposed to know.
Only a handful of Suspicious Activity Reports … they’re called SARs for short ... have ever become public.
Azeen Ghorayshi So can you describe, Anthony, for like a total layman, what actually is a SAR? What's in there?
Anthony Cormier Sure. So anytime the bank suspects that there is something unusual going on inside of its accounts, it is required by law to tell the US government about it. The way that it tells the US government about it is through a form called a Suspicious Activity Report. They list the name of the subjects who are identified as being or having done something suspicious. They tell you the amount. It tells you the bank that flagged them. It tells you whether or not a law enforcement or intelligence agency is involved.
Azeen Ghorayshi And then at the bottom of the SAR there’s something called a narrative. And it’s what it sounds like – it’s a written section that explains why the bank thinks a certain transaction looks suspicious.
Anthony Cormier So you essentially get the most precise view of an individual’s banking behavior that you can, outside of perhaps a leaked bank account. So, it’s everything that you’ve done that they’ve deemed suspicious is in there and quite often they tell you why it’s suspicious, what they think is happening, and what they’ve done with the account.
Azeen Ghorayshi So THAT is what Anthony was looking at when he was looking at these sensitive financial documents for the first time.
Specifically, he was looking at a SAR related to Paul Manafort … Donald Trump’s former campaign manager.
Anthony Cormier It appeared he was moving money in very suspicious ways. You know, large round dollar amounts that were sort of pinging from one entity to another. They were going from jurisdictions that are known to be tax havens, that are known to sort of protect the identities of companies, all the hallmarks that banks see, you know, as red flags for money laundering.
Jason Leopold This was at the height of the Mueller investigation, and what we were told was that Mueller was also looking at this. That these documents were also being sent to the Office of Special Counsel as they were tracing and investigating whether any of the funds, any of the finances that were deemed to be suspicious helped to fund the interference by Russia in the 2016 election.
Azeen Ghorayshi So those documents showing suspicious banking activity by Paul Manafort … they knew it was likely that Robert Mueller was looking at them, too. They didn’t know if or when the Office of the Special Counsel would make any moves, but they knew the clock was ticking, and they wanted their story to be out first.
Anthony Cormier You know then it was on a Friday night, and I think it was my daughter’s second birthday.
Azeen Ghorayshi Great timing.
Anthony Cormier It always is. And Ben Smith gave me a call and said, did you see what CNN just reported?
Azeen Ghorayshi Ben Smith was BuzzFeed News’s Editor-in-Chief at the time.
Anthony Cormier Special Counsel, according to CNN, was prepared to indict the first person that it was going to. This was the day. And so we did a little reporting and we’re like, oh shit, if we don’t run these documents we might get scooped by the Special Counsel.
Azeen Ghorayshi Anthony and Jason spent the weekend reporting out further details … and on a Sunday morning … they published a story saying that Mueller was looking at evidence of 13 suspicious transactions conducted by Paul Manafort.
Anthony Cormier And Monday morning Mueller had indicted Manafort, and every single one of those 13 transactions were the backbone of his indictment. And so, you know we were in the game. I remember calling Jason that Monday morning, you know he’s in LA so I’m a little early. And I’m like bro man, get up. Get up, get up, get up, get up. Dude we got all of it. All of it was right.
Azeen Ghorayshi More … after a break.
Azeen Ghorayshi When we left off, Anthony and Jason had just broken a big story on Paul Manafort’s indictment by the Special Counsel based on suspicious activity reports on him.
But Manafort's SARs were just the beginning.
It was staggering to think of how powerful a document like this could be. And this was just one person’s SARs. The government collects millions a year. Imagine what else was out there.
Azeen Ghorayshi Jason do you remember the day that you were actually sent these documents?
Jason Leopold I do remember when I got the documents. But, I’m not gonna talk about that.
Jason Leopold I’m not gonna talk about sources or methods. The Treasury Department, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the agency that’s at the center of our reporting, um, they issued a statement on September 1st. They posted it right on the homepage of their website. So if you go to FinCEN.gov, the first thing that comes up is this statement. And the statement says that they had become aware that some media outlets were going to publish stories based on Suspicious Activity Reports. And they then described how the disclosure of Suspicious Activity Reports is unlawful, threatens national security, endangers lives ... potentially. And they referred the matter to the Department of Justice for investigation, as well as the Treasury Department Inspector General.
Um. You know. What I will say is this. Is that back in 2017, um, when I started at BuzzFeed, I was watching all of these news outlets, our competitors – like the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN – break stories. And I am so fiercely competitive that I wanted to break those stories, too. And it brought me to a place where one day I was able to say, I got everything that I need. You know and everything that I need to report what we’re now reporting. The day that I finally had the records was a pretty awesome day. It was an awesome day and just this like amazing feeling of just … euphoria. And then suddenly you become paranoid.
Azeen Ghorayshi That day Jason immediately got in touch with Anthony.
Anthony Cormier He said, “Are you at your computer?”
Jason Leopold He said, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “Standby.”
Anthony Cormier I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
Jason Leopold It was very exciting to send it to him, because we had both at that point been working nonstop, night and day, for well over a year. And we had both been fantasizing about the day where we either get Trump’s taxes, or the pee tape, or whatever it is. We had just been fantasizing about this sort of motherload. And here was a motherload. And I just remember Anthony was like, holy shit, oh my god. Oh my god.
Azeen Ghorayshi So when you first got these thousands of SARs sent to you, like were you able to immediately sort of make sense of what you had in front of you?
Jason Leopold No. I mean look, the first thing that we did, that I did...
Azeen Ghorayshi CTRL F...
Jason Leopold Yeah! Thankfully they were all searchable, and I looked for Trump. I mean, that’s what I was reporting. I looked at how many instances does Trump’s name pop up or Kushner or Michael Flynn or anyone in that world.
Azeen Ghorayshi Trump, his campaign, or his businesses came up 27 times. Kushner and his company … 10 times. They weren’t necessarily the subjects of the SARs, but that didn’t even matter … because there was something even more intriguing – so much of what was in these tens of thousands of pages of documents wasn’t about Trump World at all.
Anthony Cormier You know, it was difficult to understand immediately exactly what the documents said, but you started to see some of the most important names in the world. Oh my god, here’s Oleg Deripaska.
Oleg Deripaska is a mining magnate with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Deripaska once lent millions of dollars to Paul Manafort.
And this entity and that entity and we’re going, “What in the world do we have?”
Azeen Ghorayshi What they had were more than two thousand individual Suspicious Activity Reports. A small fraction of the nearly two million SARs that are filed with the federal government every year but still … what they revealed was remarkable.
Anthony Cormier So we got the entities and individuals who had been requested as part of the Mueller investigation, as part of Congress’s piggybacking on the Mueller investigation.
Jason Leopold We now had every single document for the most part that Congressional committees were trying to obtain. Congressional committees that had been investigating the Trump administration had asked for this and they were not getting this information.
Anthony Cormier They asked for everyone. Felix Sater, the Trump Organization, Sergey Kislyak, Konstantin Kilimnik, Paul Manafort. Anybody who was even sort of remotely joined in the Mueller investigation or various sort of Congressional inquiries sort of was contained in there. But. What happened was. Is the banks - seeing this request from Congress and Mueller - went out and cast a very wide net around some of these entities. So for instance, they asked for Deutsche Bank. There’s been a lot of reporting on what kind of loans it made to the president, why it made those loans. So basically, Treasury went out and got everything on Deutsche that has nothing at all to do with the election and in fact gives us greater insight into the behavior of the bank. So you’ve got not just the very sexy kind of, oooh this is the President’s associates. But you’ve got this big sweeping net that shows us the whole world, the whole universe of bad behavior, dark money, and how the banks deal with it.
Azeen Ghorayshi So it wasn’t just the people who surrounded the President … or anyone of interest to the Special Counsel … Jason and Anthony now had in their possession a kind of vast x-ray of the entire international banking system.
But at the time ...they didn’t know it.
We’re going to get to some of the specifics … like that very intriguing story about Deutsche Bank in future episodes, but let’s stick with this for right now, because this is when the whole project pivoted.
Jason and Anthony were sitting on thousands of pages of documents. They had been sent to them for some reason. And they started to think: there must be something else there that we don’t yet understand.
So they stepped back and they asked themselves: what if we zoom out and start to look at all of this differently? What is the story these SARS are telling? Is there something here that goes way beyond Trump and Russia?
They start reading every word of what they have. Seeing what dots they can connect. They pull in other people at BuzzFeed News to help … And Anthony starts looking into money that had been moved after the infamous Trump Tower meeting in 2016, where Russians offered to give Donald Trump Jr. dirt on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He’s looking at a SAR about all this … and the dots start to come together. Like one of those magic eye posters they sell at the mall.
Anthony Cormier And I was looking at a document, and in it, the bank had flagged a series of transactions to NOBU. And NOBU is a famous sushi restaurant co-founded by Robert DeNiro, who is one of the biggest anti-Trump dudes in Hollywood.
Azeen Ghorayshi To be clear … the allegations were against a Nobu franchise in Russia, not the flagship restaurant in Manhattan. But still.
Anthony Cormier And I remember looking at this transaction like, wait a second now. Even at a famous sushi restaurant? Like, what the hell is that?
Azeen Ghorayshi As they began to dig further into the documents, there was all kinds of stuff that was being flagged as suspicious.
Anthony Cormier Like, eBay sales, casinos, supermarkets, MoneyGram, like all of these entities where these banks are continuing to flag very unusual behavior. Walgreens, dude! Like, when you start to see it on that sort of smaller scale, right? That’s when it begins to resonate and that’s when you understand like, oh my goodness gracious, this is a big vast universe that we’ve gotta become experts in fairly quickly.
Azeen Ghorayshi So, it's not Trump Russia, it's everything.
Anthony Cormier It’s the world around you. I mean, FIFA, the Olympics, trading desks, gold, diamonds, oil, everything. Every sector of the economy is besmirched in some way, by this dirty money.
Azeen Ghoraysh Next time … on Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files … we dive into the dirty money flowing through one bank you’ve definitely heard of. What happened there … and the criminal activity the bank facilitated is shocking. Look for it this Thursday.