Two House committees are investigating the tangled deal involving Russia, its acquiring of U.S. uranium, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. But the multiple layers that lawmakers, and potentially a special counsel, will explore take some unpacking.
The probe addresses unanswered questions about the Uranium One mining company’s ties to the Clinton Foundation, the nonprofit founded by the former president, during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
In a 2010 deal approved by a committee including Hillary Clinton and eight other members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, a Kremlin-connected entity obtained 20 percent of America’s uranium production by acquiring Canada-based Uranium One.
Although a joint investigation by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is just getting under way, many congressional Republicans already are calling for a special counsel to look into the facts.
A Clinton Foundation spokesperson, citing numerous news stories and fact-checking organizations, told The Daily Signal that the Uranium One-related allegations against Hillary Clinton, Democrats’ 2016 nominee for president, have been debunked. A spokesperson for Uranium One did not respond to The Daily Signal’s phone and email messages Wednesday.
Here are six major elements to the scandal now known as Uranium One.
1. What Is the Deal, and Who Approved It?
Uranium One announced in June 2010 it was selling a majority of the mining company to ARMZ, part of Rosatom, a Russian-owned nuclear energy company. Promoters of the Russian company were involved in a $500,000 speaking engagement for Bill Clinton in Moscow.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a panel charged with approving any merger where national security questions emerge, approved the deal in October 2010.
National security came up in this case because uranium is the primary fuel for nuclear energy and can be used either to make weapons or produce electricity.
The foreign investment panel is made up of nine Cabinet members, two ex officio members, and others as appointed by the president. So, neither Clinton, who was secretary of state from 2009 until 2013, nor the State Department were in a sole position to approve the deal in which Russian interests acquired Uranium One. These officeholders frequently are represented on the foreign investment panel by lower-ranking officials.
If any member of the Foreign Investment Committee opposes a sale, then the president, in this case Barack Obama, is the only one who can step in to block it, according to Treasury Department guidelines.
Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by ranking member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, warned against the sale in an October 2010 letter to then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, arguing:
The transaction could give Moscow control of up to 20 percent of the U.S. national uranium extraction capability and a controlling interest in one of the country’s largest uranium mining sites. … Russia’s record of transferring dangerous materials and technologies to rogue regimes, such as those in Iran and Syria, is very troubling.
2. What’s All This About Racketeering?
Most recently, The Hill news organization reported the foreign investment panel of Obama administration officials charged with approving the Russia-backed purchase of U.S. uranium resources was not made aware of an in-depth FBI criminal investigation related to Uranium One.
“I would hope the board and decisionmakers are as aware as possible of all factors, so they would know what they are voting on,” Ron Hosko, a former assistant director at the FBI, told The Daily Signal this week in a phone interview.
The FBI investigation appeared to be quite broad, The Hill reported that it found “substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion, and money laundering designed to grow [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States.”
The FBI probe began in 2004 when Robert Mueller, now the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, was director of the bureau. The probe ended in three convictions of individuals for money laundering and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a federal law.
Rod Rosenstein, then U.S. attorney for Maryland and now the Trump administration’s deputy attorney general at the Justice Department, supervised the FBI investigation.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself early this year from probes of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, Rosenstein—No. 2 to Sessions at Justice—appointed Mueller as special counsel.
“There was a criminal investigation related to Uranium One already and it seems because of political considerations, it was kept from the American people,” Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog, told The Daily Signal.
“Uranium One is just the tip of the iceberg regarding foreign money when Hillary Clinton was the secretary of state,” Fitton said in a phone interview. “With the information about the [Clinton] foundation and the State Department, there is easily enough to form the basis for a criminal investigation.”
Published reports have focused on numerous cases in which countries that gave money to the Clinton Foundation also had business before the State Department.
In August 2015, the Justice Department announced the guilty plea of Russian official Vadim Mikerin, a resident of Chevy Chase, Maryland, for his role in arranging more than $2 million in payments to corruptly influence the awarding of private contracts with Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation.
Mikerin was head of Tenam Corp., a U.S.-based subsidiary of Moscow-based Tenax, the supplier and exporter for Russian uranium to nuclear power companies. Tenax was aligned with Rosatom, the Russian energy company, at the time Rosatom acquired Uranium One.
Daren Condrey of Glenwood, Maryland, also pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and conspiring to commit wire fraud. Boris Rubizhevsky of Closter, New Jersey, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The Justice Department press release explained:
According to court documents, between 2004 and October 2014, Mikerin conspired with Condrey, Rubizhevsky and others to transmit funds from Maryland and elsewhere in the United States to offshore shell company bank accounts located in Cyprus, Latvia and Switzerland. Mikerin admitted the funds were transmitted with the intent to promote a corrupt payment scheme that violated the FCPA [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act]. Specifically, he admitted that the corrupt payments were made by conspirators to influence Mikerin and to secure improper business advantages for U.S. companies that did business with TENEX. …
According to court documents, over the course of the scheme, Mikerin conspired with Condrey, Rubizhevsky and others to transfer approximately $2,126,622 from the United States to offshore shell company bank accounts.
Hosko, the former FBI official, said he doesn’t believe the bureau’s past investigation would pose a conflict for Rosenstein, Sessions’ No. 2 at the Justice Department.
Hosko also said he doesn’t think the racketeering case should bear on Mueller’s current investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and suspected collusion between Russians and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, since an FBI director likely wouldn’t be aware of every investigation.
3. How Is the Clinton Foundation Involved?
Conservative author Peter Schweizer’s 2016 book “Clinton Cash,” as well as The New York Times, reported in April 2015 that the Clinton Foundation got millions from investors in Uranium One both before and after the government approved the deal, and the foundation didn’t disclose those donations.
The Clinton Foundation is a 20-year-old nonprofit charitable organization run by the former president along with his wife, Hillary, and their daughter, Chelsea.
After initially making denials, several days after the Times story appeared the Clinton Foundation issued a statement acknowledging that it had made a mistake:
Like every contributor to the Foundation, the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (Canada) is publicly listed as a donor on our website. But as it is a distinct Canadian organization, separate from the Clinton Foundation, its individual donors are not listed on the site. … So yes, we made mistakes, as many organizations of our size do, but we are acting quickly to remedy them, and have taken steps to ensure they don’t happen in the future.
As widely reported, Bill Clinton spoke at a Moscow conference organized by the Russia-based Renaissance Capital Group, collecting $500,000 for the appearance.
Clinton made the speech shortly after the Rosatom-Uranium One merger was announced in June, but before U.S. government officials approved it in October. Renaissance Capital Group reportedly had “talked up Uranium One’s stock.”
4. What’s the Case for a Special Counsel Probe?
Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee during testimony Tuesday that the Justice Department is reviewing requests from Congress to name a special counsel to investigate Uranium One and other legal questions surrounding Hillary Clinton.
However, the attorney general insisted a legal process exists to determine whether an independent investigator is needed.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., for one, is losing patience.
“I have been calling for three and a half months for an investigation on Uranium One and the Obama-Clinton era scandals, and have now reached the point that I am done with the DOJ’s smoke and mirrors,” Gaetz said in a written statement Thursday. “The time has come for Jeff Sessions to name a special counsel and get answers for the American people, or step down from his position as the attorney general.”
Conservative groups also strongly advocate an independent investigation, regarding not only Hillary Clinton but other Obama administration officials.
“The Obama administration cover-ups need to be investigated and exposed. This one is a no-brainer,” Jenny Beth Martin, chairwoman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, told The Daily Signal in an email. “In a nutshell, the American people need to know whether or not Robert Mueller—then the FBI director—and Rod Rosenstein—then a U.S. attorney—told the committee of senior Obama administration officials about the FBI’s yearslong investigation into Uranium One that included allegations of kickbacks, bribery, and money laundering.”
Those officials, who eventually decided to approve the sale of 20 percent of America’s uranium reserves to the Russians, needed that information before voting to approve the deal. Those officials included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder. If they weren’t told about the [FBI] investigation, why not? If they were told, why did they approve a deal they should’ve certainly nixed? Either way, some big names are in hot water and either way, President Obama had to know.
It would benefit the public to have a fact-finding process, Hosko said, although the former assistant FBI director added that he agrees with the caution expressed by Sessions.
Hosko said the first step is establishing that a crime might have been committed.
“Second, if there is a crime to investigate, has the statute of limitations run out?” Hosko continued. “Third, is there some reason the Department of Justice or the FBI is disabled from conducting the investigation?”
5. Does a National Security Threat Exist?
Uranium, as a nuclear fuel, could be weaponized. However, under the rules of the deal, the Uranium One merger with the Kremlin-backed company Rosatom may not pose a national security threat, based on what the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stated.
At the time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said of two Uranium One facilities in Wyoming that “no uranium produced at either facility may be exported.”
In June 2015, the nuclear commission determined that Uranium One could export uranium from the Wyoming sites to Canada. The agency explained that Canada, where the mining company is headquartered, must obtain U.S. government approval to ship U.S. uranium to any country other than the United States.
The commission also said that “no Uranium One Inc.-produced uranium has been shipped directly to Russia and the U.S. government has not authorized any country to re-transfer U.S. uranium to Russia.”
The United States is home to 1 percent of the world’s uranium reserves, while Russia has 9 percent, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Uranium is significant because the metal is the primary fuel for nuclear energy power plants and is used in some regions of the world to produce electricity. Canada has the highest grade uranium in the world, while Australia has the greatest quantity.
6. What About the Congressional Probes?
In late October, the two House committees announced plans to investigate.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the inquiry would focus on:
… regulatory approvals related to the U.S. uranium industry, foreign donations seeking to curry favor and influence with U.S. officials, whether a federal nuclear bribery probe developed evidence of wrongdoing connected to the Uranium One mining company, and Department of Justice criminal and counterintelligence investigations into bribery, extortion, and other related matters connected to Russian acquisition of U.S. uranium.
The two committees sent letters Tuesday to the FBI, the Treasury Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the State Department.
The House intelligence committee’s investigation is led by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the emerging threats subcommittee, and the oversight panel’s inquiry is led by Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., chairman of the national security subcommittee.