Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr was perfectly positioned to advance the Russia collusion narrative. He had a rare set of relationships -- ties to opposition researchers and the FBI -- and would use his links to both in 2016 to connect federal law enforcement to those advancing Trump-Russia conspiracy theories.
A mystery remains: To some in his narrow circle, Ohr was upfront about the compromising nature of his connections, yet he hid that fact from officials charged with overseeing ethics at the Justice Department. Why, then, did Bruce Ohr admit to the FBI that his wife worked for opposition researchers Fusion GPS while failing to disclose it to the DoJ? The answer speaks volumes not just about how the Trump-Russia affair gained traction but about the way Washington works.
Ohr has since confirmed to Congress who the conspiracy theorists were: “Chris Steele, as I understand it, was hired by Fusion GPS to do research or gather information. He provided information to me,” Ohr has testified. “Glenn Simpson, who is, as I understand it, a principal of Fusion GPS, on a couple of occasions, he provided information to me. And on one occasion my wife, who was a contractor with Fusion GPS, provided some information to me.”
The average opposition researcher would be hard-pressed to get the attention of an associate deputy attorney general, let alone his cooperation. But the Fusion GPS crowd had the right connections. Steele and Ohr are close enough that Steele could sign an email to his old friend with “Love and Best Wishes to you, Nellie and all the family.” Simpson is an acquaintance of long standing. Nellie is, well, Ohr’s wife.
Fusion GPS didn’t just get Bruce Ohr’s valuable attention, the firm used it to make an ask. Nellie Ohr acknowledged in her own congressional interview what Fusion GPS had in mind when Steele invited her and her husband to breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel on July 30, 2016. “Chris Steele was hoping that Bruce would put in a word with the FBI to follow up on the information in some way.” He did just that.
With one phone call, Ohr arranged to take an assortment of unverified accusations — some of them lurid, all of them partisan-financed — directly to the deputy director of the FBI. He had that remarkable access because he and Andrew McCabe had a preexisting relationship: Ohr told Congress that McCabe was someone “I had worked with in the past.” Ohr was promptly invited to bureau headquarters where he met not only with McCabe but also Lisa Page, with whom he also had well-established ties. Ohr had been, according to Page, her “first boss at the Justice Department.” She had worked for him for over five years.
Relationships, friendships, attachments — connections — are a common part of politics. Most are innocuous, but some are compromising. Distinguishing between the two is often a matter of following the money. And so senior executive-branch officials are each required to file an annual Public Financial Disclosure Report. The details collected in the Form 278e are intended to make it easy to spot corruption. For example, listing the company for which one’s spouse works, the kind of work done, and the amount earned is required so that ethics officials can be on the lookout for any actions an employee might take benefiting his spouse’s employer.
Bruce Ohr states of his wife’s work that she is an “Independent contractor.” But look high and low on the form, you won’t find any information describing who Nellie Ohr did her contract work for, or how much she was paid. The Office of Government Ethics explicitly requires those details. When it comes to a spouse’s income, the filer is instructed to: “Provide the name of the source and, for privately held companies, the nature of the business.” Not only should Bruce Ohr have listed Fusion GPS as the source of his wife’s income, he should have revealed her income and included a description of the Fusion enterprise.
Failure to file accurately can be punished with either civil or criminal charges. Why take that risk if the employment is innocent and unobjectionable? Perhaps because the “certifying officer” charged with policing filings for accuracy and completeness isn’t always vigilant: Ohr’s certifying officer, an associate deputy attorney general named Scott Schools, may have had too much on his plate to devote much time to mundane chores such as checking ethics reports.
RealClearInvestigations reached out to Schools for comment, including through media relations at Uber, where Schools is now director of compliance. He did not respond.
The most generous spin to put on Schools’ lack of action may be to dismiss it as negligence. After all, Schools certified Ohr’s ethics form on Dec. 29, 2016. He may have been rubber-stamping a stack of 278e forms ahead of the end of the year without giving them much review.
“My guess is that he averaged 30 seconds looking over every one of these, and I am sympathetic that this one fell through the cracks,” says a former senior official at the Justice Department. “I think the blame clearly falls on Ohr. While a reviewer may not have caught it contemporaneously, this clearly evinces an intent by Ohr to deceive, based on what we know now.”
What we know now is that Ohr recognized his wife’s work for Fusion GPS created a conflict of interest. He was interviewed last year by the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Lawmakers asked whether the bureau knew that the information Ohr was offering was compromised by having come from his spouse’s paymaster. Ohr testified that in his August 2016 meeting with Andrew McCabe “I warned them that my wife worked for Fusion GPS.” Ohr said he wanted McCabe, “in evaluating any information that I transmitted to the FBI … to be aware of any possible bias.”
But when asked, “Did you ever file financial disclosures reflecting that you received financial benefits as it pertained to your wife Nellie Ohr on a matter before the Department of Justice?” Ohr claimed to be in compliance: “I filed the public financial disclosure reports regularly,” he said. But “I did not report that I was receiving money in connection with a matter I was working on because, in my mind, I'm not.”
Ohr was challenged on Capitol Hill about his claim that taking information to the FBI didn’t count as “working on” the investigation. “Were you paid on official DoJ time while you got the information?” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) asked. “Yes,” Ohr replied. “I think it's overall part of my job, but it wasn't a case.”
The fundamental federal ethics statute resists such attempts at hair-splitting. Title 18 of the U.S. Code, section 208, prohibits any “officer or employee of the executive branch” from participating in any matter in which he or his spouse “has a financial interest.” What it means to “participate” is broadly drawn — everything from “decision, approval, disapproval, [and] recommendation,” to “the rendering of advice, investigation, or otherwise, in a judicial or other proceeding.”
The public financial disclosure required annually of senior government officials also leaves little room for quibbling. They are required to report not just spousal income connected to issues an official is working on, but all sources of income above $1,000. The “primary purpose of disclosure is to assist agencies in identifying potential conflicts of interest between a filer’s official duties and the filer’s private financial interests and affiliations,” according to the Office of Government Ethics. In other words, it’s not up to the filer to decide whether to report the required financial information.
Why, if Ohr was willing to tell the FBI about his conflict of interest, had he done his best to hide it on his annual ethics filing? Why didn't he correct his filing to make it consistent with what he was telling the bureau? Perhaps because he counted on the FBI to keep his role in the affair secret. Ohr encouraged the FBI to listen to Steele’s stories. When Steele broke the bureau’s rules and lost his privileged (and paid) status, Ohr stepped in to keep the stories flowing. He would talk to Christopher Steele and then report the conversation to an FBI handler who would write up the discussion in a classified form 302.
In so doing, Ohr could expect that by dealing with the FBI, his significant part in helping his wife’s employer achieve its goals would stay under wraps. By contrast, the annual ethics filings for senior government officials are public documents, available to anyone who asks for them. For Ohr to have listed his wife’s income from Fusion GPS would have been to risk exposing his own ties to Fusion GPS.
By December 2017, Bruce Ohr’s contacts with Christopher Steele had become known. Ohr, whose lawyer did not respond to a request for comment, was demoted from his senior position for failing to have been forthcoming with the Justice Department about his role as a courier carrying Steele’s opposition research to the FBI.
Justice may have disowned him (albeit with a raise and a bonus, this being the civil service) but that hasn’t repaired the damage Ohr did. The dossier, a bundle of wild accusations that might never have gotten past a junior G-man, was whisked to the bureau’s seventh floor on the strength of Ohr’s relationship with Andrew McCabe and Lisa Page. Ohr exploited one set of powerful connections on behalf of a separate, more personal set of connections. It’s almost the definition of the way Washington works.