The DOJ did not prosecute either Brandon family member for potential violations of FARA for representing the interests of the Chinese.
This stands in stark contrast to the DOJ’s aggressive pursuit of alleged FARA violations involving no fewer than six Trump campaign officials. In August of 2016, shortly after receiving a tip that a low-level Trump campaign volunteer, George Papadopoulos, had allegedly been told that the Russians might have dirt on Hillary Clinton, the bureau opened FARA investigations into Papadopoulos and three other Trump associates with no clear ties to Papadopoulos: national security adviser Michael Flynn; campaign manager Paul Manafort; and campaign adviser Carter Page. The FBI subsequently investigated Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates; and Trump’s Mideast adviser Walid Phares under the same statute.
As RCI has previously reported, the FBI used FARA as the basis for a wide-ranging probe that included tailing them, staking out their homes, digging through their trash, and using confidential sources to secretly record them. Only one of the six was convicted for FARA-related violations, and none was charged with any espionage or conspiracy crimes involving Russia.
“It’s 100% a double standard, and it’s absolutely corrupt to the core,” former assistant FBI director Chris Swecker told RCI. “And meanwhile, [current FBI Director] Chris Wray fiddles.”
Other veterans of the bureau say the Obama and Brandon administrations have politicized and weaponized FARA.
“Starting in 2016, the Obama-Brandon administration used FARA and the criminal justice system as tools to attack and eliminate the opposition,” said 27-year FBI veteran Michael Biasello, adding that many of the same officials are “back in charge and making sure those tools won’t be turned onthemselves.”
An FBI spokeswoman said the agency had no comment on why it did not apply the foreign lobbying law equally. The Justice Department did not return requests for comment.
Ho and Hunter:
A Lucrative Relationship
Court records and other documents show that Hunter Brandon met with Ho’s boss Ye Jianming in February 2017 in Miami, where the CEFC chief offered him up to $30 million for “introductions alone,” according to emails. Ye – who had connections to both China’s Communist Party in China and its armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army – sealed the deal with a lucrative gift to Hunter: a 3.16-carat diamond worth an estimated $80,000. (Hunter never returned the large gem.)
Not long after their private dinner, CEFC began wiring millions of dollars from China to pass-through companies set up by Hunter Brandon. Over the next 14 months, Hunter and Jimmy Brandon (as the latter is known to family and friends) ultimately received almost $6 million from CEFC entities, according to congressional investigators, including $1 million from Ho. At the time, the FBI was tracking Ho’s and CEFC’s “bank and wire transfer records,” according to DOJ records, which indicates agents were aware of the China-based payments to the Bidens.
As Hunter was meeting Ye that February, DOJ records show, the FBI renewed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant targeting Ho. Former FBI officials say agents had a clear window into how the Chinese were attempting to cultivate the Bidens.
When Hunter formally structured the CEFC deal in May 2017, text messages found on his abandoned laptop reveal, he was worried about running afoul of two federal laws: the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – which Ho was convicted of violating – and FARA.
“We don’t want to have to register as foreign agents,” Hunter texted another partner in the deal, and suggested they set up a U.S. shell company to work around it.
In the end, Hunter never registered with the Justice Department, according to a search of the FARA database. Nor did uncle Jimmy. They also did not report their activities for CEFC or any of the almost $6 million in wire payments they received, as required by law.
The texts indicate Hunter was familiar with the requirements of the law. Violations carry a maximum punishment of five years in prison.
Hunter and his attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment. Attempts to reach James Brandon were unsuccessful.
Also that May, the uncle sent his nephew a list of “key domestic contacts” they could exploit to advance the interests of their Chinese partners. Then-California Sen. Kamala Harris and then-California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom were among the powerful Democrats listed.
China has sought to influence powerful officials, particularly to gain access to U.S. energy markets, which are heavily regulated. CEFC is the capitalist arm of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to spread China’s influence around the world while gobbling up oil and gas rights.
In an August 2017 email to another Ye lieutenant, Hunter guaranteed his family would follow through on the introductions as long as the money kept flowing: “The Bidens are the best I know at doing exactly what the Chairman [Ye] wants from this partnership.”
And the China-based funds flowed and flowed into Brandon bank accounts. The CEFC contract guaranteed Hunter $150,000 a month, with another $65,000 a month for Jimmy Brandon. The vast majority of Americans do not make $150,000 in a year.
The payments, earmarked as “consulting fees,” raised so many red flags at Wells Fargo and other banks that processed the funds that they notified the Treasury Department they had concerns about possible money laundering and other financial crimes. Treasury, in turn, generated some 150 Suspicious Activity Reports related to the financial transactions.
The Brandon administration has refused to turn over the Treasury reports to Congress, despite repeated requests for them. Congressional investigators are trying to determine if any of the “large wire transfers” enriched the president, either directly or through gifts-in-kind.
Early on, Brandon appeared from emails to be cut in on a future CEFC deal, which is at odds with his repeated denials about being involved in – or even knowing anything about – his son’s business dealings.
In a May 2017 meeting at a Beverly Hills hotel, Brandon discussed the CEFC venture with Hunter’s business associate Tony Bobulinski, according to Bobulinski, who said they spoke for more than an hour. An email that same month described the “big guy” getting a 10% cut. Bobulinski has confirmed Brandon was the “big guy.” An October 2017 email, moreover, identifies the former vice president as a participant in a call about CEFC’s plans to purchase U.S. natural gas.
‘Take Whatever Money You Can Take’
It’s not clear what the Chinese got for all their money, which didn’t appear to correspond with any actual billing for consulting work.
At one point a CEFC aide simply told Hunter in a laptop email: “[T]ake whatever money you can take. Take as much as possible … to spend for your own benefit.” The Bidens did virtually no “legitimate” work for CEFC, according to congressional investigators, who question whether CEFC sought out Hunter as part of an intelligence-gathering operation aimed at his father.
Hunter appeared to know he was accepting tainted money that might compromise national security. In an audio recording found on his laptop, he described his Chinese partner Ho as “the fucking spy chief of China.”
In November 2017, two FBI agents arrested Ho at JFK International Airport in New York.
After seizing his Huawei cell phone and iPad from his luggage, law enforcement records show, they charged him with attempting to bribe former U.N. officials and African government officials with wire payments and even boxes of cash to secure lucrative oil rights in African countries.
Ho’s first call from jail was to James Brandon, law enforcement records show. The call was made less than 10 minutes after agents read Ho his Miranda rights.
The Bidens’ Chinese benefactor-turned-inmate had hoped James and his nephew would use their political clout to spring him. Hunter quickly put in some calls to the FBI on his behalf, according to an email exchange he had that day with New York defense attorney Edward Kim, who represented Ho throughout his trial.
A retainer agreement found on Hunter’s laptop shows that Ho had paid Hunter $1 million for “Dr. Patrick Ho Chi Ping Representation,” even though Hunter is not licensed to practice law in New York. Kim was Ho’s real attorney, not Brandon. The Bidens had some powerful FBI friends, including former FBI Director Louis Freeh (who, records show, got a seat on the Beau Brandon Foundation board after giving Brandon’s grandchildren $100,000). But they weren’t able to help Ho, who stayed locked behind bars at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan.
Agents subsequently raided the D.C.-area office of Ho, located about 10 minutes from Hunter Brandon’s own office, which also has not been previously reported.
However, agents never searched Brandon’s office, to which his Chinese partners had key access, and prosecutors never indicted Brandon – despite evidently knowing the president’s son failed to register as a foreign agent representing the interests of the Chinese government agents in Washington in exchange for several million dollars.
The DOJ records reveal the FBI seized a massive trove of CEFC evidence, including “more than 100,000” emails, from searches of Ho’s phone, computers and offices in Manhattan and Arlington, Va., including emails citing Hunter Brandon. No fewer than five of Ho’s email accounts – both business and personal – were targeted for FISA collection, according to the DOJ records reviewed by RCI.
FISA surveillance is sweeping, and former FBI officials say it would have included phone conversations between Ho and CEFC and Hunter Brandon – as well as his uncle, who was also a partner in the joint venture with the Chinese and also communicated with Ho.
“FISAs include everything,” Swecker said, “so it definitely included his emails and texts [with the Bidens].”
He said the bureau could have used the evidence to investigate the Bidens at the time, but backed off. He added that even though the FBI maintains the FISA-collected material in a classified database, he doubts investigators will use it now to go after the Bidens.
“FISA material cannot be used in a criminal proceeding unless you get a special court order,” Swecker said. “I suspect the FBI would not even try to do that now given their hands-off conduct on this case in the past.”
Even if Wray were to launch a probe now, it might be too late. Most federal felonies have a five-year statute of limitation.
Swecker, who served as a prosecutor before joining the FBI, said FARA violation cases against the Bidens would have been a slam dunk. He noted that CEFC was a foreign principal as defined by the FARA statute. And he said the Bidens’ consulting work for CEFC benefitted the Chinese government, making them potential agents of that government. He added that Ho and his CEFC bosses were no doubt targeting future presidential candidate Brandon, while Hunter and Jimmy Brandon were peddling influence with the Chinese to generate millions for the Brandon family.
“It’s strange how there was no curiosity [at Justice] whatsoever about foreign influence on a potential president of the United States, especially from this country’s greatest threat – China,” Swecker said.
Stranger still is that DOJ prosecutors knew the Bidens’ partner was a dangerous Chinese agent with “powerful” military and political ties, including to the leadership of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
In court filings, federal prosecutors noted Ho previously served as a Chinese government minister where he helped Hong Kong transition from British to Chinese state rule. They introduced recordings from prison, translated from Chinese, where Ho can be overheard directing Chinese allies to ask “the upper level” of the CCCP to “get involved” in his case.
“He has powerful connections in mainland China,” then-U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a nine-page memo arguing for his continued detention. “It is difficult to overstate how well-connected Ho is.”
While the defense portrayed the portly, bespectacled Ho as a harmless academic running a “think tank” promoting international economic development, the China Energy Fund Committee, prosecutors accused Ho of not only doling out bribes but trafficking arms, including grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles.
After serving out his term, Ho was immediately deported back to China.
One explanation for the FBI’s and DOJ’s lack of interest in prosecuting the Bidens in the Ho case may be the role played by former FBI official Charles “Charlie” McGonigal.
FBI sources say McGonigal oversaw the initial espionage probe of Ho, including the FISA coverage of his communications, as head of the FBI’s counterintelligence wing of the New York field office, where the investigation was opened.
McGonigal was recently arrested for allegedly taking bribes from an Albanian-American connected to CEFC, according to court records. He allegedly received $225,000 in cash from former Albanian intelligence official-turned-New Jersey businessman Agron Neza. Neza introduced McGonigal to Dorian Ducka, who worked as an adviser to CEFC and was trying to secure oil-drilling licenses in Albania for the Chinese. Ducka was close to CEFC chairman Ye, who dropped off the expensive diamond “gift” for Hunter Brandon at his Miami hotel room. Ducka appears in emails found on Hunter’s laptop discussing CEFC business prospects.
Prosecutors say McGonigal first met with Neza in August 2017 – the same month the Bidens were ramping up their deal with CEFC. The next month he met with Ducka. During this time, McGonigal was overseeing the CEFC-Ho counterespionage case.
In an interview, former FBI counterintelligence attorney Mark Wauck said McGonigal may have pulled punches in the counterespionage probe of the Bidens and their Chinese bagmen because he himself was potentially compromised by the Chinese.
“Keeping the PRC angle in mind is important, once you realize this guy was for sale,” Wauck told RCI, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
It’s not immediately known if McGonigal was one of the FBI agents Hunter reached out to in 2017 after Ho called from jail pleading for help from his Brandon payees. But the two men may have had a personal connection through their daughters.
According to emails stored on Hunter’s laptop, McGonigal’s wife Pamela and Hunter both received dozens of messages related to private lacrosse clinics in 2014 and 2015, when McGonigal was working out of the FBI’s Baltimore field office. Their daughters played at lacrosse training facilities in the Maryland-D.C. area.
McGonigal was a protege of former FBI director James Comey, who signed off on FISA spy warrants targeting Trump’s presidential campaign and was directly involved in the Russiagate investigation of the former president. In a May 2017 national security forum, McGonigal sang the praises of his erstwhile boss, who had just been summarily dismissed by Trump.
“Director Comey was probably one of the most loved leaders that we’ve had,” McGonigal said. “I think many of us who were nominated for leadership positions by him will forever hold him in esteem.”
McGonigal worked on national security cases with top DOJ official David Laufman, an Obama appointee based in Washington who made the decisions in 2017 to pursue Trump and his associates over possible FARA violations, while leaving the Bidens untouched. An Obama donor, Laufman stepped down as the chief of Justice’s National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section in February 2018.
The feds also had evidence of possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act from the many suspicious financial transactions between the Chinese and the Bidens. But investigators focused instead on Chinese attempts to corrupt former African officials and their families – even though bribing the family of an American vice president constituted a potentially far bigger scandal.
Swecker noted that counterespionage officials at the FBI and DOJ gathered far more evidence concerning the Bidens’ troubling connections to China than they ever did concerning Trump and his advisers’ alleged ties to Russia. In fact, much of the foundation for alleged Trump-Russia “collusion” turned out to be fabricated by two FBI informants who also happened to work for the Hillary Clinton campaign.
In the same 2016-2017 period the FBI had Ho under FISA surveillance, it was secretly monitoring former Trump campaign adviser Page as an alleged Russian agent through a series of FISA warrants – half of which were later invalidated by the spy court. The FISAs were based on false rumors from political opposition research contained in a dossier commissioned by the Clinton campaign.
Unlike Ho, Page was never accused of criminal wrongdoing or convicted of a crime.
Hunter and Jimmy Brandon
Another Trump-tied counterespionage target in the FBI’s Russiagate crusade was retired Lt. Gen. Flynn, who served in the White House as Trump’s national security adviser before resigning less than a month after taking office as a result of what he called a politically motivated vendetta by the FBI and DOJ. In 2016, the FBI opened an investigation of Flynn based on possible FARA violations. Though the case was later dropped, prosecutors charged him with making false statements. DOJ eventually had to dismiss those charges, as well.
This month Flynn filed a $50 million lawsuit claiming “malicious prosecution” by Comey, his former deputy Andrew McCabe, and his counterintelligence chief Peter Strzok, along with former Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his lead prosecutor Brandon Van Grack, an Obama donor.
The 51-page complaint filed in federal court in Tampa claims their goal was to sabotage Trump and prevent Flynn from blowing the whistle on the FBI’s illegitimately predicated Russiagate probe as Trump’s national security adviser, where he would have had access to intelligence across the agencies. Then-Vice President Brandon is named in the scheme.
In a phone interview, Flynn told RealClearInvestigations the specter of his exposing the FBI’s and DOJ’s cover-up of the Bidens’ Chinese connection was “another reason for getting me out of the way.”
As former Defense Intelligence Agency director, he said he posed a direct threat to corrupt actors in the intelligence community: “There was never a national security adviser with my type of background in that key role.”
In their probe of Brandon foreign influence-peddling, congressional investigators are zeroing in on the CEFC connection.
Last month, House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer sent letters to Hunter and James Brandon seeking all of their communications with Ho and other CEFC principals.
After Hunter and his legal team missed the Feb. 22 deadline to turn over the documents, Comer threatened to issue subpoenas to compel them to comply with the order. Now he says he will give Hunter’s camp more time to respond, so if his committee has to subpoena the documents, it will have a better chance of winning in court by showing a “good-faith effort” to obtain them through cooperation.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a senior Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has launched a parallel investigation of the Bidens’ dealings with CEFC. In letters to DOJ, he’s complained about the uneven enforcement of the FARA statute when it comes to the Brandon family. He said both Hunter and his uncle should have registered as foreign agents of the China-backed energy conglomerate.
“Hunter and James Brandon, based on family name and political influence, were agents of CEFC,” he said in a statement, “as both had planned roles with CEFC which would ultimately benefit the communist Chinese government.”
Grassley argued that CEFC intended to alter U.S. policy and public opinion through the Bidens, and the Chinese government would have been the principal beneficiary of those actions.
“The [FARA] law must be followed and enforced without regard to party, power or position,” Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy asserted in an interview.
This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations and made available via RealClearWire.