In Ms. Edwards’s case, the prosecution derided her “grandiose platitudes about protecting the American people” and dismissed her description of herself as a whistle-blower. Yes, it conceded, she had started out by alerting the proper authorities about narrowly defined issues. But then, the prosecution argued, she went rogue, “indiscriminately” sending Mr. Leopold thousands of documents that “weren’t targeted to expose some particular wrongdoing.”
On that last point, the prosecution was right: The documents didn’t reveal just one particular wrongdoing. They offered a sweeping view of global financial corruption.
Perhaps the most important documents Ms. Edwards turned over were more than 2,000 “suspicious activity reports,” which banks file to the U.S. government to warn of possible financial misconduct. Never before had journalists been able to see so many of the financial transactions that the world’s banks themselves thought were suspicious but too often carried out anyway.
A Treasury Department agency is supposed to sift through suspicious activity reports and alert law enforcement agencies if the transactions seem likely to be crimes. But sources told BuzzFeed News that officials didn’t even read most of the reports and rarely took action on them. Worse, filing the reports all but immunizes banks and their executives from criminal prosecution. Far from being a tool to root out financial misconduct, the reports effectively give banks a free pass to keep moving money and collecting fees.
When the government does crack down on banks, it frequently relies on deferred prosecution agreements — sweetheart deals that include fines but no immediate high-level arrests. But the suspicious activity reports that we reviewed at BuzzFeed News showed that even when some banks were subject to such agreements, they still carried out dubious transactions.
When the series of articles based on the information provided by Ms. Edwards was published, it spurred meaningful action by authorities around the world. British lawmakers began a formal inquiry into Britain’s oversight of banks. Members of the European Parliament pushed for a stronger and unified strategy to fight money laundering. And in Washington, senior lawmakers credited the FinCEN Files investigation with helping to push through the most important anti-money-laundering legislation in a generation. In his memorandum last week, Mr. Biden specifically said that putting that law into effect would be a cornerstone of his administration’s anti-corruption effort.
But Ms. Edwards, whose disclosures helped bring about these reforms, has been ordered to report to prison in August. This is unjust and unfair. Our criminal justice system must recognize that much of what we know about financial corruption, government surveillance and corporate crime comes not from reporters working in isolation but from journalists working with people who risk their liberty and livelihood to ensure that the truth comes out.