WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing growing pressure to show progress in their investigations, House Republicans on Wednesday detailed what they say are concerning new findings about President Joe Biden’s family and their finances.
The smoking gun, according to the GOP, is recently obtained financial records connected to the president’s son Hunter Biden, brother James Biden and a growing number of associates who received millions of dollars in payments from foreign entities in China and Romania. They suggest that the payments were part of a wide-ranging scheme to enrich themselves off the family name.
To help them get here, Congressional Republicans relied on more than 150 suspicious activity reports as a roadmap to follow what they call the Bidens’ complicated financial money trail.
The confidential reports, called SARs for short, are often routine, with larger financial transactions automatically flagged to the government. The filing of a SARs report is not evidence on its own of misconduct.
But Rep. James Comer, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee leading the probe, said Wednesday that other types of financial records obtained through congressional subpoenas and lawsuits have now become the focus of their investigation.
The White House dismissed the whole investigation as “yet another political stunt.”
“Congressman Comer has a history of playing fast and loose with the facts and spreading baseless innuendo while refusing to conduct his so-called ‘investigations’ with legitimacy,” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said in a statement.
Here’s a deeper look at suspicious activity reports and how Republicans are using them as a roadmap to investigate the Biden family:
WHAT IS A SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY REPORT?
Financial institutions are required to file a suspicious activity report to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) no later than 30 calendar days from when it detects a suspicious transaction that could have links to money laundering or terrorism financing.
First originated as a “criminal referral form,” suspicious activity reports were established through the 1970 Bank Secrecy Act. In 1996, according to FinCEN, the form became the standard way to report suspicious activity in the financial system.
The rules around the reports were later amended under the U.S. Patriot Act. Today, banks and credit unions routinely submit SARs.
WHAT TRIGGERS A SARS?
Industries that deal in large sums of money are required to file SARs to the government when they detect a transaction with possible links to money laundering, counterfeiting, fraud or illicit finance — this includes banks, casinos, loan companies and depository firms.
Signs of insider trading and individual transactions of $5,000 or more often trigger an institution to file a report, but the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation states that entities “are encouraged to file nonetheless in appropriate situations involving these matters, based on the potential harm that such crimes can produce.”
Large transactions involving foreign payers — like the kind that Hunter and James Biden are known to have engaged in through their work — are the kinds of transactions often flagged to federal authorities.
SARs can also be filed by individuals or entities outside the financial sector, including law enforcement, public safety workers, city or state officials, business owners, and even the general public.
Law enforcement agencies use the reports to uncover and prosecute illegal activity, as well as help identify and counteract fraudulent and criminal behavior before it becomes a larger issue.
In recent years, electronic SARs reporting has increased through FinCEN’s Bank Secrecy Act e-filing system. Nearly 42,000 reports were filed by the loan and financial services industry in 2021, according to data compiled by FinCEN, a huge jump from the more than 1,500 reports filed in 2015.
HISTORY OF SARS AGAINST POLITICAL ACTORS
The filing of suspicious activity reports against elected officials is not uncommon. During the Trump administration, Deutsche Bank’s anti-money laundering division recommended filing suspicious activity reports on transactions conducted by Trump companies, including the Trump Foundation, and firms owned by his son-law Jared Kushner.
Michael Cohen, a one-time attorney for former President Donald Trump, had several suspicious activity reports filed against him, including one that recorded a $500,000 deposit from a company connected to a Russian oligarch who donated money to Trump’s inauguration fund.
Most SARs are never made public. The records connected to Trump and Cohen were revealed through leaks to the media and as part of federal investigations.
CONFIDENTIALITY IN THE REPORTING PROCESS
Suspicious activity reports are cloaked in secrecy to make them useful for law enforcement. The person suspected of triggering a SARs is not routinely informed about the pending report.
Any discussion or disclosure about SARs to outside groups such as news outlets would be considered an unauthorized disclosure and is punishable as a federal criminal offense.
In the case involving Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, an IRS employee was charged by federal prosecutors in 2019 with leaking banking records that had been flagged as suspicious activity.
The confidentiality rules have come up again as Comer conducts his probe into supposed suspicious activity reports by Biden family members. The Kentucky lawmaker and some committee members and staff were recently able to view some of the thousands of pages of the Biden family’s financial records through subpoenas made to the Treasury Department and various financial institutions since January.
A handful of lawmakers immediately began talking on social media and cable news about what they had seen in the reports, asserting evidence of misconduct.
House Democrats have accused Comer and other Republicans on the committee of potentially violating the Bank Secrecy Act.