Former veteran Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe pleaded guilty on Monday to one count of making false statements to federal agents.
The guilty plea represents an about-face for Wolfe, 57, who earlier in the proceedings had vowed, through his lawyers, to "vigorously" fight charges that he lied to the FBI about his contacts with reporters. Monday's hearing had been on the calendar as a routine status hearing, but the judge began by announcing Wolfe was in court to enter a guilty plea.
Wolfe wasn't charged with leaking classified or other sensitive information, a fact his lawyers repeatedly emphasized. He was indicted earlier this year on three counts of making false statements to the FBI, which questioned him about his contacts with reporters. By pleading guilty, he saw the number of charges knocked down to just one count. However, in the statement of offense filed by the government as part of the guilty plea, Wolfe acknowledged that the government had proof of his contacts with multiple reporters.
US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson asked Wolfe if he lied to the FBI about his contact with reporters. "I did, your honor," Wolfe replied.
Wolfe took his time answering some of Jackson's questions during Monday's hearing. When the judge asked if he was pleading guilty because he was guilty and for no other reason, there was a long pause. Wolfe bowed his head and then looked back up at the judge before saying, "Yes, your honor."
Wolfe's lawyers handed out a written statement after the hearing, reiterating that Wolfe wasn't charged with compromising classified information.
"Jim has accepted responsibility for his actions and has chosen to resolve this matter now so that he and his family can move forward with their lives," the statement said. "We will have much more to say about the facts and Jim's distinguished record of nearly three decades of dedicated service to the Senate and the intelligence community at his sentencing hearing."
The indictment listed four unnamed reporters with whom Wolfe allegedly had contact. One of them, based on the details of the indictment, is New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, who previously worked at BuzzFeed News and Politico and covered the Senate Intelligence Committee. In investigating Wolfe, the government secretly seized years' worth of Watkins' phone and email records, the Times reported in June. Watkins and Wolfe reportedly had a romantic relationship.
Wolfe's decision to plead guilty means prosecutors and defense lawyers will avoid sticky questions about whether either side would, or could, subpoena journalists, media outlets, or members of Congress. The count of the indictment that Wolfe pleaded guilty to did not involve his alleged contacts with Watkins, although they were included in the statement of offense.
"Ali's been through a lot in the last few months. It's important to note that Mr. Wolfe's plea did not involve anything relating to her," Watkins's lawyer Mark MacDougall told BuzzFeed News.
Prosecutor Jocelyn Ballantine told Jackson that the parties had engaged in "substantial negotiations" and this was the only formal plea offer.
Wolfe is scheduled for sentencing on Dec. 20. He has been free pending trial since his arrest in June, and Jackson allowed him to remain free until his sentencing. His lawyers and prosecutors estimated that he faces an advisory sentencing range of between zero and six months in prison. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
According to the indictment, in October 2017 Wolfe gave a reporter — identified only as "Reporter #3" — information about an unidentified man who had been served with a subpoena to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The reporter published stories about the subpoena and the man's upcoming testimony in a closed committee hearing.
Early on in the case, Wolfe's lawyers had asked Brown to enter an order restricting government officials — including President Donald Trump — from making public, prejudicial statements about case, pointing to comments Trump had made referring to leaks of classified information. Jackson denied the request in July, finding that a gag order wasn't needed to ensure Wolfe got a fair trial.
Updated with comment from a lawyer for Ali Watkins.