FBI probed prominent U.S. philanthropic foundation at Russia’s request despite no alleged wrongdoing

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The FBI investigated an American nonprofit at the behest of the Russian government without any allegation of criminal wrongdoing, according to FBI documents reviewed by The Washington Times that revealed a decades-old hidden probe.

The Russian request and the FBI’s ensuing probe into the MacArthur Foundation date back more than 18 years. The FBI documentation shows America’s top investigatory agency did the bidding of Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD).  

Cato Institute senior fellow Patrick Eddington, who first obtained the records in litigation against the bureau for access to government files, called the FBI’s probe “completely insane.”

“The FBI should never have been, or ever be, in the business of being an errand boy for a hostile foreign power’s internal security or law enforcement organizations absent a clearly defined and stated criminal predicate,” Mr. Eddington said. 

Long before Russia invaded Ukraine and launched the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, it was closely watching the flow of money from the U.S. into Ukraine.

In May 2004, the Russians requested information confirming the existence of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and information on the transfer of $4.5 million in grants to Ukrainian citizens. 

“We would like to ask you to request the U.S. law enforcement authorities to confirm or refute the existence of [this] foundation, and if it exists — confirm the legal nature of transactions whereby the funds were transferred to Ukrainian citizens,” wrote a redacted Russian official to the U.S. government.

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation is a well-known philanthropic institution founded in 1970. It has a $7 billion endowment and supports journalism and social causes such as justice, climate change and nuclear risk with grant recipients in approximately 50 countries around the world.

The foundation has maintained an office in Moscow since 1992 that, according to the foundation, sought to help the country transition to democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Nevertheless, the FBI’s Chicago office was tasked with fulfilling Russia’s request to confirm the nonprofit’s existence and to determine its means of transferring funds.

The MacArthur Foundation cooperated with the FBI without agents needing to obtain a court order or subpoena, according to FBI records detailing the results of its investigation. The foundation indicated it did not know how Russia learned the exact amounts of the nonprofit’s disbursements. 

“The Macarthur Foundation does not know how the MVD of the [redacted] derived their dollar amounts relative to the grants in question,” wrote an FBI official in a May 2005 record. “All grants are processed through the main office at Chicago, Illinois, USA where a database with records of all grants from the inception of the Foundation are maintained.” 

The U.S. and Russia’s chilly relationship thawed somewhat during President George W. Bush’s tenure and the American officials appeared deferential in handing over the FBI’s findings to the Russians tasking them with investigatory work. 

In August 2005, the FBI sent Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs the results of the FBI investigation that showed the foundation was in “good standing.” 

The FBI gave the Russians documents it collected from the MacArthur Foundation and provided details of the nonprofit’s grants to various people, including the precise dollar amounts and the date of the transactions. Details of the recipients’ identities were redacted in files reviewed by The Times and released by the government.

“I hope this information helps your investigation and apologize for the time it took to obtain it,” an American official whose name was redacted wrote to the Russian government. 

The Macarthur Foundation’s general counsel, Joshua Mintz, confirmed its work with the FBI in a statement saying the foundation is not aware that it was ever under investigation. 

“In general, we strive to respond to reasonable requests for information from governmental entities that are otherwise publicly available or from other pertinent sources in response to the legal process,” Mr. Mintz said. “We responded to a reasonable request from the FBI regarding grants we made, which are public knowledge and included in our tax returns.”

Nothing in the unredacted documents released by the U.S. government suggests the MacArthur Foundation did anything criminal or even questionable. 

However, the documents make clear that the FBI investigated the MacArthur Foundation.

“The FBI Chicago Division conducted an investigation relative to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago, IL, USA in response to the MVD’s request for assistance,” reads an FBI record released to the Cato Institute. 

Mr. Eddington questioned whether the Russians were the only country that asked or encouraged the FBI to investigate Americans.

The FBI declined to answer questions about its probe of the MacArthur Foundation and whether it is investigating any other Americans without allegations of wrongdoing at the direction of foreign governments.  

The FBI’s willingness to investigate Americans without providing a clear explanation for its actions is not limited to its examination of the MacArthur Foundation. The FBI probed the conservative group Concerned Women for America in 2016, found nothing to investigate, and told Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, in December 2021 that it did not need to explain its actions. 

More information about the federal government’s actions may come to light after control of the House flips to Republicans when the new Congress convenes in January. The incoming majority has put the FBI in its investigatory crosshairs, and Rep. Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican who will lead the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he will launch a probe of the Biden administration’s alleged use of intelligence agencies against Americans. 

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

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