A former business partner of the tech expert at the center of the criminal case against Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann testified Tuesday that he was asked to search internet data to tie associates of candidate Donald Trump to Russia.
Jarred Novick, a top executive at BlueVoyant, a company that analyzes cybersecurity threats, said he was tasked in August 2016 with looking for links between the Trump campaign and Russian companies, including Alfa Bank, which has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I was immediately uncomfortable with the tasking,” Mr. Novick said. “I felt like this would be opposition research.”
The job assignment, he said, came from his then-business partner, Rodney Joffe, who provided bogus data that Mr. Sussmann handed off to FBI agents.
“It was very personal,” Mr. Novick told the court. “It was a political request.
Mr. Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI by saying he was not working on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign and Mr. Joffe when he peddled accusations to the FBI that the Trump Organization’s computer servers were secretly communicating with Russia’s Alfa Bank.
Prosecutors say Mr. Sussmann pitched the now-debunked Alfa Bank accusations to sabotage the Trump campaign ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Defense attorneys say he didn’t lie and his ties to Mrs. Clinton and the DNC were well known to bureau officials.
On the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Washington, Mr. Novick testified that Mr. Joffe approached him with a PDF that included personal details about Trump campaign associates, including adviser Carter Page and donor Richard Burt.
The PDF included the associates’ email addresses, names of spouses, home addresses and other data for five to seven associates of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Novick told the court that the PDF made him “extremely uncomfortable,” and he wanted to “do it quickly and get rid of it.”
Mr. Novick testified that he assembled three researchers on the project, which he dubbed “Crimson Rhino” because he didn’t want Mr. Trump’s name on it.
He said his team looked into the data and passed it along to three BlueVoyant executives, including Mr. Joffe.
During cross-examination, Mr. Novick told defense attorneys that he had a “difficult relationship” with Mr. Joffe, who thought he could be doing a better job as CEO. Mr. Novick said the pair often had “disagreements.”
Mr. Joffe retained Mr. Sussmann as his attorney in February 2015 in connection with an unspecified matter involving a U.S. government agency, according to a court filing earlier this year.
He later asked a researcher to mine internet data to create a narrative that Mr. Trump was colluding with Russia, the special counsel said.
That research later was the basis for a white paper by Mr. Joffe and Mr. Sussmann that claimed the Trump Organization was secretly communicating with Russia’s Alfa Bank.
Also on Tuesday, jurors heard from an FBI agent under investigation for withholding evidence related to the Trump-Russia probe. The agent said his error led field agents to believe the Alfa Bank investigation was spurred by the Justice Department, not Mr. Sussmann.
FBI agent Curtis Heide testified that he bungled an internal communication that he and fellow agent Allison Sands drafted on Sept. 23, 2016.
The communication wrongly stated that the Justice Department provided the FBI with evidence linking Mr. Trump to Alfa Bank when it was Mr. Sussmann.
The “typo” concealed Mr. Sussmann’s identity from field agents, who testified earlier this week that it was critical to know that the tip came from a Clinton campaign attorney.
“That’s a mistake in our paperwork,” Mr. Heide said.
When asked how he could have botched the internal communications, Mr. Heide replied, “I honestly don’t know.” He suggested that he may have conflated the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel and the Justice Department.
Mr. Heide said he was unaware of the typo until the Justice Department inspector general approached him more than two years later, in 2018. At the time, the inspector general was looking into the FBI’s overall handling of its probe into Mr. Trump’s links to Russia.
“That was the first time we identified the typo in our paperwork,” he said. “They brought it to my attention and asked me if it was accurate. I told them that I don’t believe it was accurate.”
In the electronic communication closing the case, Ms. Sands refers to the probe as “preliminary,” when in fact it was a full field investigation. The closing document also repeats that a Justice Department referral spurred the probe.
“Not a lot of attention to detail?” asked defense attorney Sean Berkowitz.
“There were mistakes, yes,” Mr. Heide said.
Mr. Berkowitz also seized on inconsistencies in Mr. Heide’s recollection. Although Mr. Heide testified that he was notified of the typo in 2018, he told Mr. Durham’s investigators in November 2019 and June 2020 that the case was based on a Justice Department referral.
The agent fired back that he was not allowed to review emails for his meeting with Mr. Durham’s team, so his memory was “hazy.”
Mr. Heide also acknowledged that he is the subject of an internal FBI investigation into accusations he withheld vital evidence from an application to surveil a Trump campaign figure in 2016.
Mr. Heide said he is under investigation for suspicions of withholding “consensual recordings” from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application to surveil a target in the Russia probe.
The agent did not name the target of the probe, but it’s likely former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, who was the subject of a FISA warrant.
“There are various consensual recordings … and the exculpatory information was not disclosed in the FISA court,” Mr. Heide told the court.
Mr. Heide denied that he withheld information and said the investigation had not been completed.
He also acknowledged that the investigation included accusations that could have “serious consequences” for his career.
Justice Department documents declassified in April 2020 revealed that Mr. Heide was the handler for a confidential human source who recorded Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
In the recordings, Mr. Papadopoulos adamantly denied that the Trump campaign was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails in 2016. He also rebutted claims that the Trump campaign was working with Russia.
Mr. Papadopoulos’ denials were withheld from the FBI’s warrant application to the FISA court, according to documents released by former Attorney General William Barr.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz listed the FBI’s failure to include Mr. Papadopoulos’ denials in the Carter Page FISA application as two of 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions.”
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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