Opinion | Natalie Edwards Exposed the Truth About ‘Dirty Money.’ Why Send Her to Prison?

Last Thursday, President Biden vowed to make international monetary methods extra clear in order that people and organizations engaged in corruption would discover it tougher to “shield their activities.”

On the identical day, a federal decide imposed jail time on Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a former Treasury Department official who, by offering secret authorities paperwork to an investigative reporter, did extra to carry transparency to the international monetary system than virtually anybody else in current reminiscence.

If Mr. Biden actually desires to battle corruption and produce transparency to international finance, he ought to pardon Ms. Edwards. He must also demand that the Justice Department, when deciding whether or not to prosecute somebody who offers journalists with delicate info, keep in mind the public significance of what the disclosures reveal.

In Ms. Edwards’s case, the public significance of the info she offered was monumental. Starting in 2017, she handed hundreds of presidency paperwork to the investigative reporter Jason Leopold at BuzzFeed News (the place I used to be the investigations editor at the time). She mentioned repeatedly that her objective was to expose wrongdoing after she had tried, with out success, to draw consideration to it via the correct channels.

Her objective was realized. The paperwork she offered ended up serving as the foundation for a whole bunch of essential information articles, together with ones that uncovered suspicious monetary transactions made by firms linked to President Donald Trump’s former marketing campaign chairman Paul Manafort in addition to these involving Russian embassy staff. Most considerably, the paperwork Ms. Edwards offered lay at the coronary heart of a collaborative investigation final 12 months known as the FinCEN Files, involving BuzzFeed News, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 108 different information organizations that exposed monetary corruption on a worldwide scale.

Taken collectively, the articles uncovered a darkish reality: “Dirty money” — terrorist financing, drug cartel funds, fortunes embezzled from creating nations, the income from organized crime — flows so freely via the world’s strongest monetary establishments that it has turn into inextricable from the so-called reliable economic system.

The prosecution in Ms. Edwards’s case, nonetheless, didn’t see her disclosures as a priceless public service. It informed the courtroom that she had dedicated a criminal offense of “colossal” magnitude. After she pleaded responsible to conspiring to unlawfully disclose monetary paperwork, the decide sentenced her to six months in jail — the most underneath sentencing pointers — and three years of supervised launch.

This is hardly the first time that the authorities has handled journalistic sources aggressively. Ms. Edwards’s sentence comes on the heels of revelations that in the Trump administration the Justice Department, in an effort to uncover confidential sources, secretly obtained cellphone data from reporters at The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times.

Such actions reveal a basic contradiction in how the United States — residence of the First Amendment and legal guidelines to shield whistle-blowers — treats the sources that make a strong press attainable. The authorities has typically prevented prosecuting journalists. But it appears to really feel no compunction about going after the individuals who give journalists their info.

In Ms. Edwards’s case, the prosecution derided her “grandiose platitudes about protecting the American people” and dismissed her description of herself as a whistle-blower. Yes, it conceded, she had began out by alerting the correct authorities about narrowly outlined points. But then, the prosecution argued, she went rogue, “indiscriminately” sending Mr. Leopold hundreds of paperwork that “weren’t targeted to expose some particular wrongdoing.”

On that final level, the prosecution was proper: The paperwork didn’t reveal only one specific wrongdoing. They supplied a sweeping view of worldwide monetary corruption.

Perhaps the most essential paperwork Ms. Edwards turned over have been greater than 2,000 “suspicious activity reports,” which banks file to the U.S. authorities to warn of attainable monetary misconduct. Never earlier than had journalists been ready to see so lots of the monetary transactions that the world’s banks themselves thought have been suspicious however too typically carried out anyway.

A Treasury Department company is meant to sift via suspicious exercise experiences and alert regulation enforcement businesses if the transactions appear probably to be crimes. But sources informed BuzzFeed News that officers didn’t even learn most of the experiences and barely took motion on them. Worse, submitting the experiences all however immunizes banks and their executives from prison prosecution. Far from being a device to root out monetary misconduct, the experiences successfully give banks a free go to hold transferring cash and amassing charges.

When the authorities does crack down on banks, it often depends on deferred prosecution agreements — sweetheart offers that embrace fines however no instant high-level arrests. But the suspicious exercise experiences that we reviewed at BuzzFeed News confirmed that even when some banks have been topic to such agreements, they nonetheless carried out doubtful transactions.

When the collection of articles primarily based on the info offered by Ms. Edwards was revealed, it spurred significant motion by authorities round the world. British lawmakers started a proper inquiry into Britain’s oversight of banks. Members of the European Parliament pushed for a stronger and unified technique to battle cash laundering. And in Washington, senior lawmakers credited the FinCEN Files investigation with serving to to push via the most essential anti-money-laundering laws in a technology. In his memorandum final week, Mr. Biden particularly mentioned that placing that regulation into impact can be a cornerstone of his administration’s anti-corruption effort.

But Ms. Edwards, whose disclosures helped result in these reforms, has been ordered to report to jail in August. This is unjust and unfair. Our prison justice system should acknowledge that a lot of what we learn about monetary corruption, authorities surveillance and company crime comes not from reporters working in isolation however from journalists working with individuals who threat their liberty and livelihood to make sure that the reality comes out.

Of course the authorities can and will censure some disclosures, resembling these which can be meant to hurt the United States or assist its adversaries. But that isn’t the case right here. In public filings, prosecutors claimed that Ms. Edwards’s revelations “put at risk countless investigations,” however they supplied no proof of precise hurt. Even if investigations have been compromised, the reforms enacted in the wake of her disclosures may properly forestall extra misconduct.

The prosecution additionally argued that as a result of suspicious exercise experiences are usually not arduous proof of a criminal offense, their launch violated the privateness of harmless individuals. But BuzzFeed News and different organizations concerned in reporting on Ms. Edwards’s revelations went to nice lengths to decide the factual foundation of any suspicions to make sure that solely verified info was revealed.

The worth of Ms. Edwards’s disclosures, like these of so many individuals prosecuted for divulging paperwork of pressing public curiosity, far outweighs any hurt they did. The Biden administration ought to acknowledge — in phrase and in deed — that people who reveal info of significant public significance are usually not criminals. They are patriots who deserve our gratitude.

Mark Schoofs (@SchoofsFeed) is the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News and a visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

The Times is dedicated to publishing a variety of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you concentrate on this or any of our articles. Here are some ideas. And right here’s our e-mail: [email protected]

Follow The New York Times Opinion part on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.