Ex-U.S. Treasury employee pleads guilty to leaks linked to Russia probe

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former U.S. Treasury Department employee on Monday pleaded guilty to leaking confidential documents relating to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and others to a reporter from digital media company BuzzFeed.

Natalie May Edwards, who was a senior adviser in the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), entered her plea to a single conspiracy charge before U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods in Manhattan.

Edwards, 41, admitted that she disclosed so-called suspicious activity reports, which are submitted by banks to alert law enforcement to potentially illegal transactions, to a reporter without authorization using an encrypted messaging program.

“I am very sorry for what I have done,” she said in court.

Edwards’ lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, told reporters after the hearing that his client believed she had good reason for disclosing the reports.

“I think she was of the view that certain critical facts weren’t being handled the right way by the government agencies whose responsibility it is to handle these things,” Agnifilo said.

Edwards is scheduled to be sentenced on June 9. As part of her plea agreement, she has given up the right to appeal any sentence of six months or less.

Edwards was charged in October 2018. Prosecutors said beginning in October 2017, Edwards disclosed suspicious activity reports connected to Manafort, his longtime associate Rick Gates, the Russian embassy and others.

Those leaks became the basis for a series of articles that appeared in BuzzFeed about former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of whether President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign coordinated with Russia, prosecutors said.

In his final report, Mueller said he had not found evidence of such coordination.

Gates pleaded guilty to crimes - including tax fraud - and agreed to cooperate with authorities. He was sentenced to 45 days in jail last month.

Manafort was convicted in Virginia of financial fraud in August 2018 and is now serving a 7-1/2-year prison sentence.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler