The secretive Washington firm that commissioned the sensational anti-Trump campaign research dossier also advised corrupt Venezuelan officials accused of conducting a lucrative money laundering scheme, a respected international human rights group told lawmakers probing the Russian election-meddling scandal.
Thor Halvorssen, head of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in written testimony that Washington-based political intelligence firm Fusion GPS operated a campaign against journalists who threatened to expose a multibillion-dollar fraud involving faulty South American electric power plants, the laundering of its proceeds in U.S. banks and a kickback scheme to pay off Venezuelan officials.
“Corrupt government officials in dictatorships would be powerless if they didn’t have cronies in the business world, and these cronies, in turn, would be useless allies without enablers like Fusion GPS, who are eager to whitewash and profit from their crimes,” Mr. Halvorssen wrote.
Wednesday’s hearing, initially scheduled to also feature testimony from Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort before they agreed to private interviews, was cut short when Democrats invoked a rule to stop committees from meeting more than two hours once the Senate goes into session.
The delay occurred just before committee members took testimony from British-American businessman and anti-Kremlin crusader Bill Browder, who has called Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson a “professional smear campaigner.”
Fusion GPS and Mr. Simpson have been central to the Russian election-meddling saga ever since the salacious anti-Trump dossier, which alleged a yearslong Kremlin conspiracy to elect Donald Trump and included colorful sex stories, was leaked to the press after Mr. Trump’s stunning election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Mr. Simpson hired ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele in 2015 to compile opposition research on candidate Trump. Reportedly sourced from the Kremlin, the dossier received initial financial support from anti-Trump Republicans before it was taken over and distributed by Democrats. It contained a lurid and largely discredited tale of a yearslong Russian effort to elect the former reality TV star and property developer, including colorful sex stories.
The White House vigorously denounced the allegations as a “pile of garbage” after online news service BuzzFeed posted all 35 pages.
Since March, the Senate Judiciary Committee has pressed for Mr. Simpson’s testimony and documents relevant to the case. Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and ranking member Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, revealed late Tuesday that they had withdrawn a subpoena after Mr. Simpson agreed to a private interview.
Wednesday’s hearing focused on the Foreign Agents Registration Act and featured experts issuing dire warnings that America has been overrun by spies and lobbyists working for foreign interests without declaring their associations. The act requires people working on behalf of foreign governments attempting to influence U.S. public opinion or policy to register with the Justice Department.
The law also forces operatives to disclose their financial dealings, essentially leaving a money trail detailing a foreign government’s influence efforts. As a result, many engaged in foreign lobbying did not register.
Mr. Grassley denounced enforcement of the law as “terribly lax.”
“Does anyone here seriously think that only 400 people in the whole United States take foreign money for PR and lobbying work?” he said in his opening remarks. “Why comply when the Justice Department clearly doesn’t make this law a priority?”
The absence of Mr. Trump Jr. and Mr. Manafort took much of the suspense out of the hearing. Speculation had swirled that committee members would interrogate them about a June 2016 meeting that Mr. Trump Jr. took with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya after she promised to provide compromising material on Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Manafort and President Trump’s son-in-law and special White House adviser Jared Kushner also attended the meeting. Earlier this week, Mr. Kushner called the meeting a waste of time and said neither he nor any other Trump campaign members ever colluded with the Kremlin to help Mr. Trump win.
Washington is still eager to hear from Mr. Browder, the driving force behind the sanctions law enacted by the Obama administration in 2012 to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009. Mr. Magnitsky served as an attorney for Mr. Browder.
Before its work on the Trump dossier, Fusion GPS worked on efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act. Mr. Grassley said the panel would reconvene Thursday morning to hear from Mr. Browder.
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