Posted by Curt on 16 March, 2017 at 7:15 pm. 1 comment.


Ken Bensinger, Jason Leopold, Craig Silverman:

An elaborate hoax based on forged documents escalates the phenomenon of “fake news” and reveals an audience on the left that seems willing to believe virtually any claim that could damage Trump.

In the third week of January, an Israeli named Yoni Ariel flew from Tel Aviv to Rome carrying $9,000 in cash on a secret mission to bring down Donald Trump.

There, he met with an Italian businessman. Seated at a table toward the rear of a café, away from the street where they might attract unwanted attention, Ariel recalled, he handed over the cash. In exchange he was given a copy of a potentially explosive set of documents.

Its 35 pages told the story of a $1.6 billion wire transfer from petroleum giant ExxonMobil to a European office of a Chinese mining company, which a day later transferred 1.4 billion euros to the Trump Organization, the privately held conglomerate founded by President Trump.

The transfers appeared to have taken place in mid-June, at the exact same time that Exxon’s then chief executive, Rex Tillerson, was in St. Petersburg at an economic forum, which Russian President Vladimir Putin also attended. Less than six months later, President-elect Trump — victor in an election that the US intelligence community said the Russian government had interfered with — nominated Tillerson to be his secretary of state.

To Ariel, who is married to an American and calls Russia’s tampering in the elections “an act of war,” the implications of these billion-dollar transfers were clear: Exxon had secretly bribed Trump to name Tillerson to the powerful cabinet post.

Alarmed, Ariel passed the documents to a network of Democratic and anti-Trump activists who in turn shared them with prominent news organizations including BuzzFeed News.

The only problem: The documents were phony. The wire transfers never occurred, and the entire set of documents appear to have been forged as part of an elaborate scam. The fake documents were created, sold, and circulated by a cast of characters that includes a flamboyant Italian who claims to be a baron and a knight, an Israeli who says that during apartheid he engaged in “political subversion” on behalf of the African National Congress, and an American felon who digs up dirt to hurt Trump and other Republicans.

In the slightly more than four months since the presidential election, a burgeoning market for potentially damaging information about President Trump and his associates has emerged. Opportunists have begun dangling such would-be smoking guns — sometimes for a price — in front of journalists, amateur sleuths, and deep-pocketed political activists so eager to damage the Trump presidency that they can be blind to potential red flags.

Such forgeries escalate the phenomenon of “fake news,” the Facebook- and Twitter-friendly lies that tell readers what they want to believe and that are packaged to look like authentic journalism. In this case, evidence was deliberately fabricated that could make fictional allegations seem authentic. Such forged documents also feed the hunger of a growing audience on the left that seems willing to believe virtually any claim about Trump’s supposed bad deeds.

Forgeries that have duped the public and influenced American politics aren’t new, of course. Fake documents (also with roots in Italy) led the George W. Bush administration to suggest that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger, for example, and questionable records of Bush’s National Guard service ended Dan Rather’s career at CBS News.

Since Trump’s election, a spate of people, often with financial motives, have been peddling dirt on the president. One anonymous tipster, for example, asked $15,000 for “credible” videos of women telling “erotic” tales of Trump at nightclubs in various countries. A high-profile private investigator in Los Angeles wanted $2 million in “funding” for what he described as “game-changing information” about Trump and his wife, Melania. In both cases, BuzzFeed News rejected the offers. An Israeli startup, meanwhile, tried to convince reporters that portions of Trump’s inauguration speech had been plagiarized using its software, a claim that appears to be untrue.

Although Ariel acknowledges paying for the alleged Exxon documents, neither he nor others who helped circulate them asked for compensation from journalists; instead, they argued passionately that the documents appeared authentic and demanded attention for what they saw as the good of democracy. But however noble their intentions may have been, had they succeeded in persuading journalists of the documents’ authenticity, they could have further muddled the waters in an era increasingly defined by the spread of disinformation.

Wire Fee:

Chase does not charge fractional dollar amounts for business wires, nor is the fee based on the amount transferred. Its corporate customers pay a flat fee for international wires.

The documents allege that on June 16, 2016, Exxon entered into a “joint participation agreement” with MCC Holding, a state-owned Chinese company. The terms in the contract are vague, stipulating only that Exxon will send $1.6 billion to MCC for “Foreign investment, Fiduciary Management and Profit Sharing.” It is signed by two officials of MCC and an American employee of Exxon.

Supplementing the contract is an email, written in Italian and lacking headers or signatures, that summarizes the transaction. The file also includes a wire transfer receipt from Chase Bank, showing the movement of $1.6 billion from Exxon’s account to MCC’s account at HSBC in France on June 16, and an HSBC wire slip dated June 17 showing a “donation” of 1.4 billion euros, equivalent to $1.575 billion at the time, to the Trump Organization.

“We have no record of the transaction, and after reviewing the document, there are a number of details that indicate it isn’t genuine,” JPMorgan Chase spokesperson Brian Marchiony said. HSBC disavowed the other wire. “We don’t recognize the document or any of the transaction data on it,” said spokesman Robert Sherman.

Exxon spokesman William Holbrook declined to comment on the documents, saying that to do so “would dignify” false information, but noted that the Exxon employee whose signature is on the contract, Sandra C. Collier, had not worked for the company for “years and years.” Reached by telephone, a Texas woman named Sandra Cheryl Collier denied any involvement and hung up.

MCC Holding, based in Beijing, did not return emails and repeated phone calls.

The Trump Organization referred a request for comment to the White House, which did not immediately respond.

Ariel is 60 years old and also goes by the name Jonathan Schwartz. He said he is involved in a startup company that he declined to describe in detail, as well as a “cyber media consultancy” that he recently founded. He was born and raised in South Africa and his voice betrays a distinct trace of that country’s accent.

In vouching for the documents’ authenticity, he referred repeatedly to what he said was his experience in international espionage. He emigrated to Israel in 1969, Ariel said, but starting in the late 1970s he worked for the African National Congress, helping the party fight apartheid and engaging in what he called “political subversion.” Since then, he said, he has worked as a journalist and political consultant, and claims credit for unearthing a number of political scandals in the country.

Because of his training, Ariel said, he became convinced as far back as July that Russia was interfering with the US elections, and he began speaking up about it even before Trump won. He said he first heard about the Exxon documents late last year from Sheldon Schorer, an attorney who until recently was legal counsel and spokesman for Democrats Abroad Israel, a chapter of an international group that describes itself as “the official Democratic Party arm for the millions of Americans living outside the United States.”

Schorer, in turn, said a former Israeli ambassador to Italy contacted him in the fall and asked if he might be interested in the documents. Both Schorer and Ariel declined to name the retired Israeli diplomat, but two sources confirm it was Gideon Meir, who from 2006 to 2011 held the Rome posting.

Meir, who could not be reached for comment, apparently learned about the documents from an Italian in Rome named Corrado Pasetti, who describes himself as a consultant who helps construction firms establish business operations in foreign countries, particularly in Africa.

Pasetti said he told Meir about the documents and that he eventually sold them to Ariel. At first, Pasetti said, he asked 150,000 to 200,000 euros for the originals. But after negotiation, the two settled on $9,000 for copies because, Ariel said, that amount fell just below the threshold most countries require be declared at international border crossings and thus would leave no paper trail.

According to Ariel, Pasetti is a retired member of Italy’s intelligence service, and the documents were intercepted by active Italian intelligence officers monitoring whether Exxon was properly complying with the sanctions placed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea. Schorer, for his part, said he was told the documents were gathered by the Italian federal police, the Carabinieri.

Pasetti denies all of those details.

“I am a businessman. I don’t care about political things,” he said. “If somebody wants these documents, I am ready to give them to him for compensation.”

The truth, Pasetti said, is that he was given the documents by an associate whom he would not name, and to whom he eventually passed the $9,000. That person, Pasetti said, got them in turn from someone named Luigi Forino, who happens to be one of three signatories to the alleged Exxon contract, where he is listed as a “general manager director” of the Chinese firm MCC Holding. Accompanying Forino’s signature is what appears to be a color copy of the photo page of his Italian passport, which gives his age as 40.

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