Robert Mueller may have ties with one of the Russian oligarchs he’s currently investigating as the special counsel to the Department of Justice’s investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller was Director of the FBI in 2009 when the bureau attempted and eventually failed to rescue FBI agent Robert Levinson, who was captured in 2007 while working for the CIA.
Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska, a Russian oligarch and aluminum magnate, ended up spending $25 million to fund the Levinson mission, his lawyer said. The money was used to pay for a private search and rescue team who worked with Iranian contacts under the scrutiny of the FBI.
The FBI chose Deripaska to fund the Levinson mission because his aluminum empire had business in Iran; it would’ve violated U.S. sanctions if the FBI funded the mission; and the U.S. banished Deripaska in 2006 over his reported connections to organized crime — although nothing was proven in court.
More than a dozen participants inside and outside the FBI, including Deripaska, his lawyer, the Levinson Family, and a retired agent who supervised the case have all confirmed the mission, The Hill reported on Monday.
Some aspects of Deripaska’s role in the mission were published in a book by a New York Times journalist who covered the story. (RELATED: The ‘Russian Collusion’ Trial Is On, And Mueller May Be The First Casualty)
In order to get Deripaska to bankroll the mission, FBI agents courted him with secret hotel meetings in Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Hungary and Washington in 2009, according to The Hill.
“We knew he was paying for his team helping us, and that probably ran into the millions,” said a U.S. official involved in the mission, according to The Hill.
In 2010, the FBI had secured an offer from Iran to free Levinson; but under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department was uncomfortable with Iran’s terms and abandoned the deal.
“We tried to turn over every stone we could to rescue [Robert Levinson], but every time we started to get close, the State Department seemed to always get in the way,” said retired FBI agent Robyn Gritz, who supervised the Levinson case in 2009 before leaving to take another position in 2010 — before the deal with Iran.
“I kept Director Mueller and Deputy Director [John] Pistole informed of the various efforts and operations, and they offered to intervene with State, if necessary,” Gritz added.
The FBI ended the mission entirely in 2011 over concerns Deripaska’s Iranian connections wouldn’t deliver with the U.S. infighting.
“Deripaska’s efforts came very close to success,” said David McGee, a lawyer who represents Levinson’s family and a former federal prosecutor. “We were told at one point that the terms of Levinson’s release had been agreed to by Iran and the U.S. and included a statement by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointing a finger away from Iran. At the last minute, Secretary Clinton decided not to make the agreed-on statement.”
Eleven years after he disappeared, Levinson’s whereabouts remain a mystery.
The FBI rewarded Deripaska with rare law enforcement parole visas, according to U.S. entry records in 2009; and even though he doesn’t work for the Russian Foreign Ministry, he’s been granted a diplomatic passport at least eight times since 2011. FBI officials reportedly confirmed they arranged the access.
Several legal professionals have posited whether Mueller has a legal conflict of interest in his role as the special counsel. But the “far more significant issue” is whether or not the FBI-Levinson mission was legal in the first place, said Melanie Sloan, former executive director of a nonprofit government ethics watchdog group — Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — and a former Justice Department lawyer under then-President Bill Clinton.
“It’s possible the bureau’s arrangement with Mr. Deripaska violated the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits the government from accepting voluntary services,” Sloan said.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, agreed with Sloan.
“If the operation with Deripaska contravened federal law, this figure could be viewed as a potential embarrassment for Mueller. The question is whether he could implicate Mueller in an impropriety,” Turley said.
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