The odds against whistleblowers are formidable, and the story of Dr. Natalie Edwards demonstrates a simple truth. There are limitations to whistleblowing because sometimes the truth will not set you free but place you in jail. Edwards’ story is a cautionary tale that dealing with the government can be a losing proposition because they set the rules. Some of the rules are set up to rig the system against whistleblowers. The path a whistleblower takes can lead to unexpected areas because when all else fails, the government can take away a whistleblower’s security clearance or charge them with a criminal offense.
Dr. Natalie Edwards has a Native American background of which she is very proud. Her early background can be read in Part 1 of this series. During the intertribal wars of the Great Plains Indians, counting coup, or striking the enemy was the highest honor earned by warriors. Key to the success in counting coup was showing courage, and risking one’s life in charging the enemy, getting close enough to touch them by a hand, a weapon, or a coupstick. Showing courage was the most important aspect of showing superiority over your enemies. Dr. Edwards showed incredible courage when she got close enough to the Treasury Department as a whistleblower and removed paperwork that revealed serious misconduct by government officials. She successfully committed counting coup, symbolically touching her enemy, risking, and losing it all in an incredible display of courage. What she did not expect was the dishonorable way the government responded.
A whistleblower acts on the purest of motives, telling the truth and committing a fair and honorable deed that must be followed through because the whistleblower acts with a moral compass. On the other hand, the government seeks to protect a system that allows them to play by their own changing rules, on their own changing landscape. If a whistleblower does not have the appropriate legal counsel, someone to lead them through a dystopian landscape littered with traps for whistleblowers. They are bound to fail because the system is set up precisely for that reason. The rules of engagement, set up by an adversarial bureaucracy, are not meant to make things easier on the whistleblower. The rules are really set up to confuse and discourage whistleblowers, and often, the whistleblowers’ legal counsel. Whistleblowers have been vilified for so long, that they tend to believe the harsh judgments thrown against them. Still, they are warriors, and must enter battle as a warrior does, with a mindset of staying in the fight until the bitter end and utilizing armor that will protect them against all blows. That armor consists of knowledge of whistleblower policies and laws, and a competent whistleblower attorney. Edwards’ story is a clear example of the duplicity of the government and the need for competent legal representation from the very beginning of the battle.
Edwards graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) with a Ph.D. in 2007. Her dissertation was “Core Competences Required to Lead an Executive Level at the Department of Homeland Security.” She developed a Master’s-level program at VCU in Homeland Security and Public Safety. The program is still used today. The third mentor Edwards found in her life was Dr. Gary Sarkozi (her dissertation chair) who led Edwards into the area of virtual technology and guided her to working with the School of Government and Public Affairs. Edwards developed the Master’s program for VCU through the School of Government and Public Affairs.
Edwards started her government career with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in 2007 after going on USAJOBS and finding herself intrigued by ATF’s mission. Edwards was assigned to the Learning and Technology Division, training ATF agents, which she loved as she found ATF agents to be “family-oriented with love for each other, and compassion for their mission.” Edwards stated that she has never been in a job where there has not been backstabbing, and she did not find that at ATF. ATF treated “you as a person, not a number.” Director Mike Sullivan always made a point to walk around the building, recognizing each employee and asking if anything could be done to improve an employees’ day. Edwards brought Virtual Learning to ATF in 2007-2008, resulting in monetary savings and time saved.
Edwards saw a position that came open on USAJOBS for the Intelligence Community (IC), applied and completed a day-long interview. Before Christmas 2014, Edwards got a phone call that advised her she had the job of Learning Technology Specialist. On her Entrance on Duty (EOD) date, she reported to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was processed and advised she had to go to Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and EOD again. It turned out, Edwards worked for both agencies, which were noted on performance evaluations. “What is important for people to understand is that I was never an analyst,” Edwards said, reiterating it was important to know she had a different skill set than an analyst in the CIA. She worked for both the CIA and DNI as a Learning Specialist, received over $2.5 million of training, and had a skill set that set her apart from the average Treasury employee, with the highest clearance that you can have at the CIA, a Collection Management Officer (CMO).
Edwards worked the Snowden case, the Benghazi case, and visited thirty-two countries. She was an employee of ATF, who went to CIA training, and was sent to the Treasury Department. She worked out of the Tyson Building (aka the Toilet Bowl) in Vienna, Virginia from October 2014 until she was arrested in October of 2018.
Edwards noted that while at Treasury, she attended meetings and ran the Presidential Management Fellows Program (PMFP), rising to be number one in utilizing PMFP. She provided new position descriptions and developed a career ladder for all employees at Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN.) FinCEN is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and reports to the Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. FinCEN’s mission is to “safeguard the financial system from illicit use and combat money laundering and promote national security through the collection, analysis, and dissemination of financial intelligence and strategic use of financial authorities.” They carry out this mission by receiving and maintaining financial transactions and analyzing the data.
Congress has given FinCEN certain duties and responsibilities for the central collection, analysis and dissemination of data. FinCEN shares information and coordinates with foreign financial intelligence unit (FIU) counterparts and serves as the FlU for the United States and is one of more than 100 FIUs making up the Egmont Group, an international entity focused on information sharing. The concept behind FinCEN is “follow the money.”
Edwards reported to Treasury at the Toilet Bowl and was assigned to the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA), working with international foreign partners, who provided Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) from their own countries. Edwards oversaw the Egmont Group for the intelligence division which had a private secure portal. Edwards also had to respond to all Congressional Requests for Information (CRI), and “other duties as assigned.”
As a GS 15-8, Edwards occupied a top-level position, not yet in Senior Executive Service (SES) but in a position reserved for supervisors, high-level technical specialists, and top professionals holding advanced degrees. Edwards was so good at her job that other divisions at Treasury asked for her assistance, with her supervisor giving permission while advising them that they had to pay her overtime. After Edwards left Treasury, the government tried to besmirch her name by saying she did not do anything while at Treasury, but that was far from the truth.
One day Edwards was sitting at her desk, reviewing documents, and a specific name popped up in a document. Then another name popped up, which Edwards knew presented problems. One was an American and one was a Russian, and Edwards realized that someone had gone into a classified system of targeted names and retrieved data, which is illegal. The OIA in Treasury had access to targeted names, and someone pulled a target name in the classified SARs and ran it against an unclassified data base. Edwards blew the whistle that a classified name was unmasked at Treasury, it was a violation of Executive Order 12333, and placed that information in an official report.
Edwards saw many problems at Treasury and blew the whistle on an insider threat at Treasury who had access to data with no clearance. After informing her superiors, they resolved the problem. Edwards also blew the whistle on malfeasance by FinCEN in inadequate staffing in certain units which would have a direct effect on information to stop terrorism bombings, both foreign and domestic.
Edwards notified FinCEN security of counterintelligence threats at Treasury and submitted additional whistleblower complaints concerning Treasury government officials communicating with Russian officials on throwaway Gmail accounts. The Russian government was communicating with the Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes (TFFC) division, and instead of using their handle of Russian.gov, they were communicating with Gmail accounts with the gmail.com handle and included attachments. Treasury was opening these attachments and answering back. Edwards stated that this breach could result in the Russian government manipulating the SARs data base and introducing false information. The Russians should have been going through Egmont but were deliberately circumventing the entire process and system. ISIS, Edwards remarked, did the same thing during 9/11. Edwards forwarded the breach to Treasury Inspector General (IG) and FinCEN security.
Edwards also was concerned with Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential race and felt that the Treasury Department was not being straight with Congress by withholding information concerning the interference. Edwards felt that some information, which related to the Robert Mueller investigation and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, needed to be revealed to Congress and the American people.
In 2016, Edwards asked Congress to investigate her whistleblower information and protect her as a whistleblower. In August 2016, Edwards was informed by the Treasury Legislative Affairs that she was not to speak to Congress. Edwards contacted the Treasury IG and asked for whistleblower protection. The following month, Edwards was hit with a wave of hostility from Treasury, and her security clearance and access to files were revoked, and then reinstated. The hostility from Treasury continued for the rest of the year, and finally in December of 2016, Edwards retained counsel.
Edwards noted that as a former Intelligence Community (IC) employee, she was not aware of the process for instituting official documents for whistleblower protection. Edwards had assumed that by providing information to the IG, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the FBI, and other agencies, an investigation would be conducted, and she would remain anonymous and protected as a whistleblower.
Edwards did not know that she had to send a FORMAL complaint. She also did not know that she could file a complaint with OSC prior to the IG completing their report. Utilizing an informal means of communication had resulted in no investigations or communications from the agencies she had filed her whistleblowing allegations with, and no record or knowledge of her allegations being utilized in a way detrimental to Edwards.
Edwards recalled that the Acting Director of Treasury had told her to send a complaint to the IG or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEO). On March 17, 2017, Edwards again sent a message to Treasury IG advising that she “continued to be harassed, retaliated against and reprised against for disclosure of information she believed was evidence of several violations of laws, regulations, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds and abuse of authority prohibited by 5 U.S.C S 2302. As a declared whistleblower, taxpayer and public servant, Dr. Edwards, upon your review request this formal complaint and investigations be transferred to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and/or the Merit System Protection Board.”
Edwards did not receive any kind of response from these agencies that provide oversight and disclosures of wrongdoing in the federal government because they were not set up to help or assist the whistleblower. The Whistleblower Protection Act protects any disclosure of information by federal government employees that they “reasonably believes evidences an activity constituting a violation of law, rules, or regulations, or mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority or substantial and specific danger to the public.” Edwards had plenty of violations to report — she just did not have the right paperwork and format to put those violations on. Regardless that allegations of malfeasance in working terrorism at Treasury, and the security of the American public were at stake, the agencies that provided oversight and protected disclosures were not interested until it came to them in the right formatted paperwork. Their job is not to assist the whistleblower, regardless how many times they were asked to consider information critical to the American public.
On March 30, 2017, Edwards filed a formal letter asking for whistleblower protection from DOT Office of the IG. The harassment and retaliation of Edwards continued. On May 23, 2017, Edwards submitted a formal complaint asking for whistleblower protection to the OSC. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was filed requesting information regarding whistleblower retaliation at Treasury, and a response was received by the FOIA requester that there was no whistleblower retaliation at Treasury.
In June of 2017, Edwards filed a whistleblower complaint concerning public safety as lack of Treasury staff made people vulnerable to a terrorist attack. She also noted that the Treasury IG lied to Congress in advising them about a specific terrorist attack outside the country and was notified her whistleblower complaint was referred to the Council of the Inspector General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).
By July of 2017, Edwards had not seen any communication or action on her whistleblower case and was introduced to a BuzzFeed reporter by a friend. In the fall of 2017 Edwards was very concerned about the possibility of terrorist attacks, and made note, and established communication with then-Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions, asking him to investigate. Edwards was adamant that she was a whistleblower, and not a leaker, because she had the authority to provide SARs to anyone, she deemed necessary. SARs are also not classified. Edwards felt that she had uncovered corruption within the Treasury Department, the Justice Department, the FBI and OSC, and she noted that at no time did she give any agency permission to expose her identity.
Edwards continued her communication with Congress by utilizing a cutout, a middle person who would relay to Edwards specific SARs that Congress would request, and Edwards honored those requests. On August 17, 2017, Edwards sent a communication to OSC and her supervisor concerning the possibility of terrorism because of staffing issues. In September 2017, Edwards was concerned regarding her position would be seen as a whistleblower, and not a leaker. Congress relayed to her that she was a whistleblower because she had the authority to disclose any information in a SAR under 31 USC S 5318 (g)(2)(A)(ii). It was noted that SARs are not classified, and the wrongdoing Edwards uncovered was tied to national security.
In August and September of 2017, Edwards mailed packets of her whistleblower complaint to Congress, the AG, and FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting assistance and a meeting to discuss the information she had mailed. Only Congress responded, and a Senator advised her that there was dysfunction at Treasury, and it had been going on for a long time, and it had gotten worse.
Treasury OIG notified Edwards that one of the issues she had raised was a counterintelligence issue and Edwards would have to run it through the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG), which she did. However, the ICIG told Edwards she would have to file her complaint with the Treasury IG because she was employed with the executive branch. Edwards discovered that the IGs were having her chase her own tail, and obviously being very creative in their interpretation of the relevant federal statutes.
Edwards found patterns in the letters sent by Congress requesting Treasury SARs that linked global banking corruption. She independently discovered and uncovered a massive ring of money laundering, offshore criminal accounting and Ponzi schemes. The illegal activity demonstrated how the banking industry was harboring the dirty money and aiding illegal activity such as human trafficking, drug cartels, fentanyl drug rings, illegal weapon purchases, bitcoin schemes and dark web and dark economy corruption. Believing that the public should be aware of the worldwide dark economy, Edwards provided BuzzFeed with thousands of SARs. The reports involved Rick Gates, Paul Manafort, the Russian Embassy, Russian spy Maria Butina and a Russian company that had been accused of money laundering.
Starting in 2017, BuzzFeed published several articles detailing banking transactions that were under scrutiny by Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. SARs from Edwards were the source. The documents Edwards provided resulted in a collaborative investigation called the FinCEN Files, involving the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and over a hundred other news organizations that revealed financial corruption on a global scale.
The FinCEN Files exposed the dirty money that flowed through the world’s most powerful financial institutions, terrorist financing, drug cartel funds, embezzled funds from developing nations, and organized crime profits. The FinCEN files spurred to action banking authorities around the world. The European Parliament pushed for a strategy to fight money laundering, Britain began a formal inquiry into their oversight of banks, and Washington credited the FinCEN files investigation for pushing through the most important anti-money laundering legislation in a generation. President Biden noted that the legislation would be the cornerstone of his administration’s anti-corruption effort.
In October 2017, OIG advised Edwards that one of her complaints was simply a failure of communication and another matter had been fixed. Edwards sent a letter in October to two Senators advising them of violations of Executive Order (EO) 12333 by Treasury. On April 9, 2018, the OIG informed Edwards that Treasury was not illegally collecting information, and a security matter at Treasury had been fixed. On May 21, 2018, Edwards received a closure letter from OSC. Edwards also received from OIA counsel notification that they could not proceed because FinCEN could not share information with them. Edwards noted that there was no legal bar to FinCEN providing SARs to OIA.
On October 16, 2018, Edwards was arrested by the FBI and charged with two criminal counts. One count was for unauthorized disclosure of SARs. A second count was Conspiracy to Make Unauthorized Disclosures of SARs. Edwards had previously sent the FBI packets of information concerning her whistleblowing, hoping they would do something about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Instead, the FBI advised that her whistleblowing was irrelevant and used her packets as the predicate for her arrest warrant.
Treasury indefinitely suspended Edwards, stripped her of her clearance, and took away her pay and benefits. On June 24, 2019, Edwards appealed this action to OSC, asking that they stay the personnel actions. Edwards was advised by OSC that it was not an adverse personnel action, but rather an administrative matter, so it could not do anything.
On January 21, 2019, Edwards appeared in court in the Southern District of New York and waived her rights to a hearing. She also pleaded not guilty. On January 13, 2020, Edwards pleaded guilty in the USDC SDNY to one count of conspiracy to make unauthorized disclosures of SARs. Edwards’ attorney, Stephanie Carvlin, had advised the court that Edwards had a “burning imperative in her mind” to expose wrongdoing after “having gone through the whistleblower channels, and it was going nowhere.” A BuzzFeed spokesman noted that Edwards was a whistleblower who fought to warn the public, through the whistleblower process and then through the press.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods ruled that Edwards “may have initially tried to act as a whistleblower to spotlight perceived wrongdoing,” something that could be a valuable service to the country when done through proper channels, she allowed a journalist to “cultivate” her as a source to release confidential information. Obviously Judge Woods never tried to utilize or follow whistleblower mandates and guidelines, because if he had, he would have been much more conciliatory in Edwards’ sentencing. It is a byzantine system with excessive administrative detail, and it demands legal representation by highly competent lawyers skilled in whistleblower law. The system seems built to discourage not only the whistleblower, but their lawyer who has to have the patience of Job, and the skillset of a data scientist. Most whistleblowers do not have the funding to hire an attorney, and attempt to navigate the system alone, which is a critical mistake. Many whistleblower complaints are terminated because they did not meet certain regulatory requirements, and there are no Mulligans given for mistakes.
On January 28, 2020, Edwards received notification from OSC that she had a right to file a Right of Action to MSPB. OSC stated that although an individual bringing an IRAS appeal to MSPB must show they exhausted all OSC procedures, their decision to end the investigation may not be considered in an IRA appeal. It really made no difference because on July 17, 2020, MSPB dismissed and denied Edwards’ whistleblower case noting that she not only failed to precisely address her claims, but it was also law enforcement sensitive and contained PII material (information that allows the identity of an individual to be directly or indirectly inferred).
Edwards filed an IRA Pleading Appeal to MSPB, which on August 21, 2020, advised her that there were no members in place for MSPB so a decision could not be rendered. Then on October 26, 2020, MSPB notified Edwards that her case had been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
In June of 2021, Edwards was sentenced to six months in prison for one conspiracy charge. The prosecutor noted that Edwards made complaints internally, but her claims were “not substantiated,” and she had been hoping to “leverage her claims into a promotion.” Edwards’ claims were substantiated, and the only leverage she got was to lose her house, car, job, health and soon, she will be losing her freedom. She is set to report to prison in September of 2021. Edwards likes to quote Senator Chuck Grassley who said, “Often the whistleblower’s reward for dedication to the highest moral principles is harassment and abuse. What is needed is a means to assure them they will not suffer if they help uncover and correct administrative abuses.”
Edwards, always the indigenous warrior who refuses any thought of backing down, still has a whistleblower case sitting at MSPB. Fielding and fulfilling so many requests for Congressional inquiries, Edwards was surprised that only one Senator, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) spoke up on her behalf. But that comes as no surprise to whistleblowers, as Senator Wyden is famous in whistleblower circles for noting that if he had his way, “Every day would be whistleblower day.”
David K. Colapinto, a founding partner of Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto, the leading whistleblower firm in the United States, noted that “Dr. Natalie Edwards is a victim of a system that failed her. That is why whistleblowers need better protection. There needs to be stronger laws and training, and of course, one needs good legal advice preferably before going outside the agency. Whistleblowers should not want to give the agency a reason to fire them and they should follow the rules if they want to be legally protected.”