Mueller Opens Criminal Investigation Into Clinton Fundraiser Tony Podesta in Russia Probe

Tony Podesta poses by staircase.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has broadened his investigation, originally focused on Donald Trump's ties with Russia, to a major Hillary Clinton bundler who worked for Ukraine's Party of Regions, a political group backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, also worked for this party.

Recent reports have implicated Mueller in an alleged FBI cover-up. The FBI had been investigating the Russian firm Rosatom for years before the Obama administration approved its acquisition of 20 percent of U.S. uranium in the Uranium One deal. The FBI kept the investigation secret, even when it could have prevented such a monumental purchase.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton (who was on the very board which approved the Uranium One deal) stood to benefit from the deal, as a Russian bank promoting Uranium One stock had paid her husband half a million for a speech (and directed millions to Clinton Foundation-linked companies). At the same time, the FBI acted quickly to bust a Russian spy ring because it got too close to Clinton.

Mueller — who as head of the FBI seems likely to have known about the Rosatom investigation and covered it up, just as the FBI switched into overdrive to protect Hillary Clinton — has broadened his investigation of Trump-Russia into a line of questioning that might finally implicate the other side of the 2016 election, Clinton herself.

On Monday, NBC News reported that Tony Podesta and the Podesta Group are now the subjects of Mueller's federal investigation. NBC News cited three unnamed sources, who may have leaked the information on Mueller's orders — in order to suggest impartiality after these recent stories implicated Mueller.

The Podesta probe grew out of Mueller's inquiry into Manafort's finances, NBC News reported. Manafort had organized a public relations campaign for the non-profit European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU). The Podesta Group also worked on that campaign.

According to NBC News' sources, the Podesta investigation began as a fact-finding mission about Manafort's role in the ECMU, but later broadened into a criminal inquiry into whether or not the firm violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). [An allegation PJ Media reported last April.] That act requires those who lobby on behalf of foreign governments, leaders, or political parties to file disclosures about spending and activities with the Justice Department.

The Podesta Group filed a FARA registration for ECMU work only after the payments were reported by the media. Manafort's firm did the same.

The ECMU was reportedly backed by the Party of Regions, the pro-Russian party of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych has been referred to as Putin's puppet in Ukraine, and his party was funded by Russian oligarchs. He was president of Ukraine during the ECMU campaign between 2012 and 2014.

As chairman of the Podesta Group, Tony Podesta is now under Mueller's eye. His brother John Podesta, who served as Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chairman in 2016, is not currently affiliated with the Podesta Group and is not part of Mueller's investigation, NBC News reported.

A spokesman for the Podesta Group told NBC News the firm "is cooperating fully with the Special Counsel's office and has taken every possible step to provide documentation that confirms timely compliance" to FARA.

Despite NBC News' caveat that John Podesta is not under investigation, the news of Mueller probing Tony Podesta still directly connects the Trump-Russia investigation to Hillary Clinton's campaign. The chairman of the Podesta Group was one of Clinton's big bundlers during the 2016 campaign.

Podesta's work with ECMU is not the only connection between him and Russia. Last March, Politico reported that the Russian bank Sberbank hired Tony Podesta and other lobbyists at the Podesta Group — to petition the U.S. government over "the scope of U.S. sanctions against Russia for its role in the Ukraine conflict and whether relief is possible."

Sberbank is not just some random Russian bank. Owned by the Russian government, the bank controls 30 percent of Russia's banking assets and employs over 250,000 people.

Furthermore, the bank was prominent in the "Panama Papers" leak, which revealed the extensive network of financial fraud Putin used to enrich his cronies. It has ties to companies used by members of Putin's inner circle to funnel state resources into lucrative private investments, as reported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

The "Panama Papers" leak implicated Podesta. The ledger of the Party of Regions, unearthed by the "Panama Papers" leak, also revealed millions paid to Paul Manafort.

The Ukrainian government has accused Sberbank of perpetrating Russian aggression against its country. In 2014, Ukraine's Security Service charged Sberbank with "financing terrorism," alleging its financial branches distributed millions of dollars in illegal aid to Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

Western intelligence has broadly supported these allegations, according to the Observer's John Schindler.

"Sberbank is the Kremlin, they don't do anything major without Putin's go-ahead, and they don't tell him 'no' either," a retired senior U.S. intelligence official with extensive Eastern European experience told Schindler. Russia's Central Bank holds the majority stock in Sberbank, making it an unofficial arm of the Kremlin, even though it is still legally private.

Mueller's investigation into Tony Podesta and the Podesta Group has been a long time coming, and it is heartening to see the special counsel turn his eye toward the Russian connections of some prominent Clinton backers for once.

None of this frees Mueller from the stain of the FBI keeping the Rosatom investigation secret during the Uranium One deal, however. It is not enough to merely expand the Russia investigation into actors on Clinton's side — he needs to fully investigate Russia ties on both sides of the aisle.

If Mueller's investigation is truly nonpartisan, evidence suggests he will find a great deal more dirt on Clinton's side of the ledger. Perhaps the Trump-Russia meme will die a slow death. The Podesta investigation is the first inkling that Clinton-Russia is just as much on Mueller's radar as Trump-Russia, and it may burst open the floodgates.