WASHINGTON – A prominent cybersecurity lawyer was indicted on charges of lying to the FBI five years ago during a meeting on Donald J. Trump and Russia, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
The lawyer, Michael Sussmann, was charged. Mr. Sussmann – from the law firm Perkins Coie, which has deep ties to the Democratic Party – is accused of making a false statement about his client at the meeting.
Sussmann’s defense attorneys have denied the allegations, saying he did not make a false statement that the evidence he did was weak and that he was not a representative in any case. They have promised to fight any charges in court.
The indictment is centered on September 19, 2016, with a meeting with an FBI official, in which Mr. Sussmann shared concerns from cybersecurity researchers who believed that unusual Internet data could be evidence of a hidden communication channel between computer servers connected to the Trump organization and with Alfa Bank, a Kremlin-affiliated Russian financial institution.
The FBI investigated the concerns about Alfa Bank, but dismissed them. The special lawyer who later took over the investigation in Russia, Robert S. Mueller III, ignored the case in his final report.
According to people familiar with the matter, the FBI official with whom Mr. Sussmann met, James A. Baker, who was then the agency’s chief lawyer, remembered that Mr. Sussmann told him he was not there on behalf of any client. Prosecutors allege this was a false statement; Sussmann’s legal team denies that he said that.
Sussmann has separated from the fact that he represented a cybersecurity expert who had helped investigate the unequal internet data and who wished to remain anonymous.
In addition, the billing records of in-house law firms obtained by the Attorney General, John H. Durham, are said to show that when Mr. Sussmann had done some work on the Alfa Bank case, he logged it as time for the Hillary Clinton campaign. (A colleague of Mr. Sussmann, Marc Elias, was the general counsel for the Clinton campaign.)
In addition to saying that Mr Baker’s memory is inaccurate, Mr Sussmann’s legal team has said that his client was a cybersecurity researcher and that the billing records are misleading.
A lawyer for the researcher, who spoke on condition that his client remain unidentified, has said that his client understood that Mr Sussmann represented him at the meeting with Mr Baker.
The indictment represents the first criminal case developed by the special lawyer appointed by the Trump administration in May 2019 to see through the Russia investigation into any offense, John H. Durham.
Both Trump and the attorney general who appointed Durham, William P. Barr, raised expectations among Mr Trump’s supporters that the charges would uncover serious offenses by high-level officials and support allegations that the Russia investigation was a conspiracy in the so-called deep. state to sabotage Mr. Trump.
So far, Mr Durham’s inquiry has not lived up to these expectations. Before now, the only other case it brought was a false statement against a former FBI attorney who pleaded guilty to altering an internal e-mail used in preparation for applying for wiretapping, and which escaped jail time. In addition, the case had been investigated by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, not Mr Durham’s team.
In September last year, a top helper left Mr. Durham and a trusted assistant from his many years in the office of United States attorney in Connecticut, Nora R. Dannehy, suddenly joined his team. She has not spoken publicly, but The Hartford Courant, which first reported on her resignation, quoted unidentified colleagues in Durham’s office as saying she had expressed concern over Barr’s pressure to deliver results before the 2020 election.
The next month, Mr. Barr secretly special adviser status to Durham, which prompted him to continue working with some independence after Trump lost the election and the Biden administration took office.
It remains unclear whether Mr Durham is preparing a long-term report for public consumption, similar to the one produced by Mr Mueller. Without the office, Mr. Trump repeatedly issued statements smoking: “Where’s Durham?”
The current Attorney General, Merrick B. Garland, said at his confirmation hearing in February that he would let Mr Durham continue working, but was unobtrusive about the details, including how he would handle any final report if Mr Durham submitted one.
Funding for most Justice Department operations, like large parts of the federal government, is controlled by an annual budget that covers a fiscal year beginning October 1 and ending September 30.
Spokesmen for Mr Garland and Mr Durham have declined to comment on whether Durham’s office has a funding authorization to continue operations after 30 September.