• Wed. Oct 4th, 2023


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FBI Investigating Spy Ring’s Political Contributions

Prosecutors are scrutinizing a series of campaign contributions made by right-wing operatives who were part of a political spying operation based in Wyoming.

Federal prosecutors are investigating possible campaign finance violations in connection with an undercover operation based in Wyoming that aimed to infiltrate progressive groups, political campaigns and the offices of elected representatives before the 2020 election, according to two people familiar with the matter and documents related to the case.

As part of the operation, revealed in 2021 by The New York Times, participants used large campaign donations and cover stories to gain access to their targets and gather dirt to sabotage the reputations of people and organizations considered threats to the agenda of President Donald J. Trump.

In recent days, prosecutors have issued subpoenas for at least two of the people The Times identified as being part of the operation, including Richard Seddon, a former British spy, and Susan Gore, a Wyoming heiress to the Gore-Tex fortune, the people said. The subpoenas were reported earlier by CNN.

According to one of the subpoenas reviewed by The Times, prosecutors and F.B.I. agents in Washington are seeking a trove of information related to the political spying operation, including documents related to Mr. Seddon’s firm, Branch Six Consulting International, along with at least two other entities registered in his name.

Prosecutors also sought communications, documents or financial records tied to Erik Prince, the international security consultant, as well as former operatives who worked for the conservative group Project Veritas and its founder. Mr. Prince and Mr. Seddon are longtime associates.

The operatives working for Mr. Seddon made several large political donations — including $20,000 to the Democratic National Committee, which gained them entree to a Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas in 2020. They also made donations to the election campaigns of Senator Mark Kelly, Democrat of Arizona; Colorado’s secretary of state, Jena Griswold; as well as to the Wyoming Democratic Party.

Drew Godinich, a spokesman for Ms. Griswold, said she returned that donation.

Mr. Seddon used money from Ms. Gore to fund the operation. Ms. Gore has said publicly that she was not aware her money was being used for sabotage operations. Robert Driscoll, a lawyer for Mr. Seddon, declined to comment. Nicholas Gravante, a Manhattan lawyer for Ms. Gore who represents many high-profile clients, also declined to comment.

It is not clear if the operatives who made the donations — Beau Maier and Sofia LaRocca — did it at someone’s behest and were reimbursed. Both were named in the subpoena reviewed by The Times. It is also unclear whether the couple had been subpoenaed or were cooperating with federal authorities.

The F.B.I. declined to comment.

Mr. Seddon closely managed the two operatives, who filed weekly intelligence reports to him about their activities and targets, according to a person with direct knowledge of the operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the secret details.

Under federal law, it is illegal to make campaign donations at the behest of another person and be reimbursed for them. So-called straw donations have been central to several federal investigations.

According to interviews and documents obtained by The Times, the operation began in 2018, when Mr. Seddon persuaded several former employees of Project Veritas — the conservative group that conducts undercover sting operations — to move to Wyoming and participate in his new venture.

Mr. Seddon, who at the time was working for Ms. Gore, wanted to set up espionage operations in which undercover agents would infiltrate progressive groups and the offices of elected officials, and potentially recruit others to help collect information.

It is unclear how much information Mr. Seddon’s operatives gathered, or what else the operation achieved. But its use of professional intelligence-gathering techniques to try to manipulate the politics of several states showed a greater sophistication than more traditional political “dirty tricks” operations.

It also showed a level of paranoia in some ultraconservative Republican circles that the electoral map in the United States might be changing to their disadvantage. Specifically, there was a concern that even a bedrock Republican state like Wyoming could gradually turn toward the Democrats, as nearby Colorado and Arizona had.

Republicans have sought to install allies in various positions at the state level to gain an advantage on the electoral map. Secretaries of state, for example, play a crucial role in certifying election results every two years, and some became targets of Mr. Trump and his allies in their efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

One target of the spying ring was Karlee Provenza, a police reform advocate who won a seat in the Wyoming Legislature representing one of a few Democratic districts in the state. Ms. Provenza said she was heartened that federal authorities had not ignored the episode, while Wyoming officials have not acted.

“I am glad to see that the Justice Department is investigating efforts to try to dismantle democracy in Wyoming,” she said. “The actions of Susan Gore and the people she supports have been unchecked since this spying operation was revealed.”

In 2017, Mr. Seddon was recruited to join Project Veritas by Mr. Prince, the former head of Blackwater Worldwide and brother of Betsy DeVos, who was Mr. Trump’s education secretary at the time. According to people with knowledge of Mr. Prince’s role, he believed Mr. Seddon could turn Project Veritas into a more professional intelligence-gathering operation.

Soon afterward, Mr. Seddon was engineering an effort to discredit perceived enemies of Mr. Trump inside the U.S. government, including a planned sting operation in 2018 against Mr. Trump’s national security adviser at the time, H.R. McMaster. He also helped set up operations to secretly record F.B.I. employees and other government officials.