The Republican National Committee (RNC) tried to conceal payments it made during the 2016 election to a shadowy intelligence-gathering firm for opposition research against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Politico reported on Friday that the RNC paid $41,500 to the Hamilton Trading Group, a Virginia-based private company run by former CIA operatives. The agency worked with a former Russian spy to hunt for information that would show conflicts of interest between Clinton’s role as Secretary of State and her interests as a private citizen and leader of the Clinton Foundation.
Observers in politics and intelligence noted that it would be odd for the RNC to make payments to Hamilton Trading given that the group specializes in matters pertaining to Russia.
“RNC officials and the president and co-founder of Hamilton Trading Group, an ex-CIA officer named Ben Wickham, insisted the payments, which eventually totaled $41,500, had nothing to do with Russia,” wrote Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel and Eli Stokols.
Wickham and the RNC initially claimed that the payments were in return for building and security analyses of RNC headquarters in Washington.
“But RNC officials now acknowledge that most of the cash — $34,100 — went towards intelligence-style reports that sought to prove conflicts of interest between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State and her family’s foundation,” Politico said.
HTG produced two dossiers, both of which attempted to make a case that Clinton directed U.S. interventions in Bulgaria and Israel on behalf of energy firms that donated to the Clinton Foundation, said individuals familiar with the documents.
Wickham told Politico in a Thursday interview that he floated the building inspection story because “any other work we may have done for them” was covered under a nondisclosure agreement.
“I’m not denying that I wasn’t totally forthcoming, but I’m telling you why,” Wickham told Politico. “The security stuff that we did, which is legitimate, was not covered by any kind of a confidentiality agreement, so I can discuss that.”
Last June, when the RNC filed financial disclosures with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), a $3,400 payment to Hamilton attracted attention because the firm is not known for building security consultations, but rather for espionage work related to Russia.
“Adding to the intrigue are the firm’s intelligence connections in Russia, where it was known to perform background checks and provide security services for American officials and companies,” said Politico.
The job was handed to former KGB agent Gennady Vasilenko, who declined to comment on the matter.
Wickham denied that his firm looked into any connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, saying he has “never had any contact with … Trump or Manafort or their people.” Politico said the RNC has produced documents detailing a list of Clinton-related issues it tasked Hamilton Trading with researching.
He said that while his firm is not well-known for building security, it did an assessment for the RNC to protect against a “McVeigh-type” bombing attack or a gun-wielding intruder like the San Bernardino mass shooting.
“We certainly are not widely known, as we have always been a two- to three-man company and have done little advertising,” Wickham said, adding that the firm has done anti-terror security consultations for Amtrak and the International Monetary Fund’s offices in Moscow.