Natalie “May” Edwards has made a pact with her 16-year-old daughter: Every night before bed for the next six months, each will say a quiet prayer at the exact same time. Her daughter will be doing so from home in Virginia. Edwards will be doing so from a women’s federal prison in West Virginia.
“I am emotionally prepared as far as entering the facility and meeting the other people,” Edwards, 43, told BuzzFeed News in an interview on Thursday evening. “I am not emotionally prepared for being separated from my daughter and my husband and my immediate family.”
A former Treasury Department official, Edwards — whose decision to leak a trove of highly confidential government documents to BuzzFeed News prompted a massive investigation that exposed how dirty money moves through the global banking system and helped spur legislative action in the US and beyond — reported to Federal Prison Camp, Alderson, on Friday morning to begin her six-month sentence. The minimum-security prison is where Martha Stewart and Billie Holiday both served time.
The information she provided to BuzzFeed News formed the basis of the FinCEN Files, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor.
But many across the US are not familiar with Edwards. Labeling her “the forgotten whistleblower,” the Washington Post described her in July as “one of the most important whistleblowers of our era, and yet hardly anyone remembers her name.”
Despite losing her freedom and most, if not all, of her family’s finances waging a legal fight, Edwards maintained she had no regrets, believing her actions will help thwart future criminals and terrorists. “I’m absolutely proud of what I did,” she said, “and I know American lives have been saved.”
Her husband, Dave Edwards, said that he believed his wife was a political prisoner and that prosecutors had set out to destroy his family in order to set an example. “You’re sentencing her to prison because you don’t want other whistleblowers to come forward. I see how this works,” he said. “She’s a 43-year-old mother of a 16-year-old girl who has lost everything. What crime is she going to commit by being in home incarceration?”
“This is a personal vendetta against her,” he said. “You’re gonna put away a lady that got no money, that had no motive other than accountability, that lost everything — now she’s gonna lose her freedom for six months. All so you can stop people coming forward. You’re the ones who are gonna have to look into the mirror.”
Edwards received her sentence in June after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to make unauthorized disclosures of suspicious activity reports, also known as SARs. Banks file these documents to the federal government to alert authorities of potential criminal activity.
But the investigation by BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which involved more than 100 news organizations in 88 countries, revealed how banks file SARs and then continue to process and profit off suspicious payments, thereby facilitating criminal activity while enriching themselves and shareholders. The US government collects the SARs, but does not force the banks to shut the money laundering down.
In June, just over a week after Edwards was sentenced, the Pulitzer Board at Columbia University named the project a finalist in the international reporting category “for a massive reporting project that yielded sweeping revelations about the ongoing role of some of the world’s biggest banks in facilitating international money laundering and the trafficking of goods and people, corruption that continues to frustrate regulators across the world.”
But the FinCEN series was not released until nearly a year after Edwards was arrested. Prosecutors charged her in connection with a dozen BuzzFeed News stories from 2017 and 2018 that cited SARs and that covered, among other things, the investigation of former special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI probe into Trump 2016 campaign chair Paul Manafort.
Edwards has maintained she leaked the documents to BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold in a bid to expose corruption after trying in vain to work through official channels. “I did this for the American people,” she said in an interview. “My motive was accountability, and the American people had a right to know what was occurring within Treasury and that it was a national security issue and that American lives were in jeopardy.”
“Instead of the government doing their job,” she said, “they decided to come after a whistleblower.”
Prosecutors countered that Edwards acted “indiscriminately” with her leaks and was “blinded by her own apparent sense of self-righteousness.” They also described her disclosures as “unparalleled in FinCEN’s history,” having sent approximately 50,000 documents, including 2,000 SARs, to Leopold over the course of a year and running searches within internal systems at his request.
In a New York Times opinion piece, BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs called on President Joe Biden to pardon Edwards, arguing her sentence was “unjust and unfair” and noting the public good that came from her disclosures. “The Biden administration should acknowledge — in word and in deed — that individuals who reveal information of vital public importance are not criminals,” Schoofs wrote. “They are patriots who deserve our gratitude.”
Almost 5,000 people have since signed an online petition calling for Edwards to be pardoned. The White House has given no indication Biden intends to do so, despite the president signing a memorandum on June 3 — the day Edwards was sentenced — vowing to make fighting corruption, particularly in the financial world, a national security priority.
“Ms. Edwards is a whistleblower whose brave actions exposed financial corruption on a global scale. For helping to bring about tougher regulations in the US and other countries, she should be celebrated, not punished,” said Ariel Kaminer, BuzzFeed News’s executive editor for investigations. “President Biden promised to fight corruption. Now is the time for him to acknowledge her courage and patriotism by granting her a pardon.”
On Thursday morning, the day before she was due to report to prison, Edwards said a farewell to her best friend, Casey Burmeister, in Virginia. Speaking through tears to BuzzFeed News after the meeting, Burmeister said she told her friend she loved her and considered her an American hero. “My words were that she is Jason Bourne and 007 and Wonder Woman and Captain America all in one, because she didn’t do anything wrong and the truth will prevail,” Burmeister said. “I couldn’t be more proud. She is the most heroic person that I know. They have taken her freedom and her life.”
Following her arrest, and as a result of legal expenses, Edwards and her husband said they have lost their home, car, and health insurance. “The impact from a financial standpoint has been devastating,” Dave Edwards said. “It has drained her accounts, her savings — everything.”
Dave Edwards said he believed the severe financial strain was the government’s intended punishment. “It has nothing to do with her leaving our family for six months; it has everything to do with prosperity,” he said.
Michael Pavel — a member of the Skokomish tribe and friend of Edwards, an Algonquian woman who has said her tribal upbringing shaped her sense of right and wrong— said the criminal prosecution has also taken a toll on her psychological and social well-being. “It’s been very difficult on her and her family,” Pavel said. “She is a calm and steady force, and I think she’ll do fine in prison, but it weighs on her not to be with loved ones.”
Her brother, Nick Sours, attended every one of her court appearances and said his usually outspoken “little big sister” has become more reserved. Still, Sours said, “I don’t think there was ever a point where I wish she’d never done it.”
Physically, Edwards is also deeply concerned by the extremely contagious COVID-19 Delta variant and how she might be impacted by it given her hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and asthma. Researchers have linked mass incarceration to pandemic vulnerability and an estimated half a million people have contracted COVID-19 in jails. Edwards, who is vaccinated, said she intends to write to the prison warden upon entry and provide medical evidence of her conditions in the hopes of compassionate release.
The night before she was due to report to prison, Edwards dined with her parents, Birdie and Woody Sours, on a meal of her favorite foods: heaped plates of scallops, Alaskan snow crab legs, potatoes, and buttered corn. Her husband was to go to the gym to work out some stress, then the two planned to watch a movie together, before grabbing some rest and starting their early morning drive to West Virginia.
Edwards’ daughter had been sent away on a beach holiday with friends — her parents were concerned the emotional goodbye would be too much. The mother and daughter had spent their last few days together chatting as the teen drove them around with her new driver’s license. Edwards told her they’d need to be “pen pals” for the next little while, which her daughter found to be a laughably ancient concept.
“I’m hoping the warden will allow me to make phone calls to her,” Edwards said. “I don’t know how this works. I’ve never been in trouble with the law.” ●