On Tuesday, Fusion GPS founders Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch wrote an op-ed for The New York Times. In it, they claimed they and their opposition research firm were nothing but an open book and were seeking greater transparency from three congressional committees who have been digging into the probe of Russian election meddling.
All three committees have sought information from Fusion GPS and its principals, who were hired by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee to do opposition research. That funding paid for the salacious and still-unsubstantiated dossier alleging treasonous collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. In Fusion GPS’ vague telling, they’ve been nothing but forthright with the committees, which came as news to those committees.
A spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley of the Senate Judiciary Committee reminded Fusion GPS that the firm and its principals routinely fought the committee. Spokesman Taylor Foy said, “Senator Grassley provided Fusion GPS an opportunity for transparency six months ago when he invited the firm to publicly testify at an open committee hearing. Mr. Simpson declined. When faced with a subpoena from the Chairman and Ranking Member, Mr. Simpson refused to provide public testimony, using his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to negotiate for a closed-door interview. Despite his public statements, Mr. Simpson and his attorney demanded during the interview that the transcript be kept confidential. Mr. Simpson has refused to answer dozens of questions voluntarily, and has failed to provide the Committee with documents and responses to follow-up questions after the interview.”
On the other side of the Hill, it’s also been far from the picture of compliance and transparency that Fusion GPS claimed in its op-ed. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has spent much of the previous year fighting Fusion for access to basic records tied to the investigation.
On Thursday, a U.S. District Judge denied Fusion GPS’s effort to keep the House committee from bank records it sought. Judge Richard Leon, who took over the case after the previous judge Tanya Chutkan recused herself midway over unspecified conflicts, smacked down all four grounds by which Fusion GPS tried to block the congressional subpoena. That subpoena included requests for records of payments from Fusion GPS to journalists who have covered the Russian dossier story.
Fusion said the request for records lacked a valid legislative purpose, were overbroad and irrelevant, violated First Amendment rights to speech and association, and violated financial privacy laws. The judge disagreed on each count.
Lacked A Valid Legislative Purpose
Fusion tried to argue that House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) lacked the authority to issue the subpoena, in part because they erroneously believed he had recused himself from the Russia probe. Judge Leon cited the U.S. Constitution, rules of the House of Representatives, and the public record to throw water on the argument. He said that at no time did Nunes “recuse” himself from the Russia investigation, though he did allow other committee members to take charge of it while he resolved his ethics investigation.
“[H]e retained the power to issue the Subpoena at issues in this case… Indeed the Subpoena would be invalid without Chairman Nunes’s signature unless the full Committee authorized another member to sign it, which it did not,” Leon wrote.
Incidentally, Nunes was cleared of ethics violations in early December. He had been accused of sharing classified information when he revealed that Obama administration officials had collected and unmasked much information about Trump campaign officials and spread it around. The committee found that he had not violated House rules or any other standard of conduct.
Overbroad and Irrelevant
Fusion then claimed that none of the law firms about which the committee sought information contracted to work on Russia or Donald Trump. It also said that records of transactions between Fusion and certain media companies and journalists were “not pertinent.”
Judge Leon noted, given the balance of powers in the U.S. Constitution, courts are not to determine that legislative records requests aren’t proper unless they’re obviously irrelevant. Since the committee “has intelligence suggesting that Fusion directed [researcher Christopher] Steele to meet with at least five major media outlets to discuss his work on the Trump Dossier,” it’s reasonable to pursue records related to “various media companies and journalists to determine whether they, too, had involvement with the Trump Dossier or with Russian active measures directed at the 2016 Presidential election,” he wrote.
Leon noted that Fusion had multiple ties to Russia and the Russia investigation. Mark Elias, an attorney with Perkins Coie who represented both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, retained Fusion for Russian opposition research. But Baker Hostetler had hired Fusion for work on behalf of Prevezon Holdings, a Russian state-owned company. In fact, this second law firm relationship led to accusations that Fusion GPS was acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of Russia.
Leon also noted that it was unwise to allow the subject of an investigation to determine what may be investigated, particularly since part of the committee’s work is classified and Fusion would not know the complete justification for document requests.
Fusion GPS also tried to argue that turning over the records would hamper their First Amendment rights to engage in free political speech, free political activity, and for good measure they added free association. Judge Leon noted they simply failed to even try to make their case. Even if they had tried, while the work they perform may be highly political, the business relationships they form are not. He said, “[T]he First Amendment is not a secrecy pact!”
Judge Leon also dismissed Fusion’s concerns that the committee would not keep the information private. Fusion claimed that the committee had leaked the identity of their bank to the media, but provided no evidence to support those allegations. The judge said he needed evidence of wrongdoing by the committee, adding, “[t]his is especially true in light of the fact that Fusion itself has played a role in publicizing aspects of this litigation and the Committee’s investigation.”
Finally, Fusion tried to argue that federal financial privacy laws protected the records, but since Fusion is a limited liability company and not a partnership or an individual, they are not so protected, the judge ruled.
You can read the whole ruling here.