WASHINGTON - Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday his department's inspector general is looking into whether banking records of President Donald Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen were leaked from an agency database, as well as whether any of the records were improperly blocked from view.
Mnuchin said the department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN, does have the power to "suppress important information" at the request of law enforcement agencies. But he says he does not know whether that happened in this case.
The New Yorker magazine reported last week that a law enforcement official leaked information about Cohen's bank records to several media organizations. That information showed a Cohen company getting large payments from organizations seeking to curry favor with the incoming Trump administration. The payments included money from pharmaceutical giant Novartis, telecommunications company AT&T and from a company associated with a Russian billionaire.
The magazine said the leak came from a law enforcement official who was worried that some information dealing with Cohen's banking records had been removed from the FinCEN database and the missing data might indicate an effort to cover up the payments.
The information about the payments to a shell company being used by Cohen was first revealed by Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who says she had an affair with Trump.
Avenatti has refused to say how he got the information, but the New Yorker reported that the details on the payments came from a single document, a Suspicious Activity Report, filed by First Republic Bank, where Cohen's shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, maintained an account. The magazine said the law enforcement official who leaked the report had grown concerned after he was unable to find two other reports on Cohen's financial activity that he believed should have been in the FinCen data base.
Banks must file suspicious activity reports, or SARs, with FinCEN when they spot transactions that raise questions about possible financial misconduct such as money laundering.
Mnuchin was quizzed about the issue by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., during an appearance Tuesday before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. Mnuchin said he had not been involved with the collection or review of the specific reports in question and he said his comments should not be construed as confirmation that the leaked information related to Trump's lawyer.
But as a general rule, Mnuchin said, "We do have the ability to suppress important information and for different law enforcement reasons as you can appreciate, this is often done." He did not spell out the reasons, but presumably they would include protecting ongoing investigations.
Mnuchin said Treasury's inspector general was reviewing various issues involving the leak of the information and also the process used to suppress details related to the case.
"There is no excuse whatsoever for anybody who has access to these important systems to release information on an unauthorized basis, and I can assure you that our inspector general is reviewing these issues very carefully," Mnuchin told Coons.
When Coons pressed Mnuchin about whether the investigation would also look into whether there had been any "inappropriate interference" with the documents that were alleged to have gone missing, Mnuchin said that would also be part of the investigation.
"I can assure you that they are doing a thorough review because this system ... is absolutely critical to our entire FinCEN effort and we need to make sure it is in no way at risk," Mnuchin told the subcommittee.