Watchdog Q&A

Published — January 17, 2020

Q&A: Jeff Stein on Michael Flynn’s shady deals with foreign money

Introduction

We’re continuing our Q&A series on journalists who published powerful stories. In 2017, Newsweek reporter Jeff Stein wrote a piece about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s shady dealings with foreign money. By the time Flynn was fired, he was taking money from Russians (and failing to disclose it) and taking money from the Turks under the table. Stein zeroed in on one overlooked line in Flynn’s financial disclosure form, which forced him to amend to detail those foreign payments. Stein found what some would argue is one of the most audacious schemes in recent memory: a plan to build U.S. nuclear power plants in the Middle East — claiming he was doing it as a safety measure. 

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

Michael Flynn had been in the news constantly since Trump appointed him national security adviser. A few months into the administration, I decided to take another look at his financial disclosure form, and there I found an update disclosing that he had done some consulting work for a firm I was not familiar with. So I poked around and found that it was comprised of former high level military officers, national security officials and business entrepreneurs who were involved in a project to bring nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. 

When I discovered it also envisioned the Russians being involved, I knew I had a pretty good story. Perhaps the nicest payoff was when, right after we published the story, I got a call from an investigator on the House Oversight Committee saying, “Hey, we didn’t know about that!” They opened an investigation, which led to several more stories.

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them? 

I can think of stories in the past that were more challenging because of a lack of documentation. But since Flynn had listed the company in his disclosure form, I had a head start on finding out who was involved. 

And the great thing about Washington is that there are always people around who have dedicated their lives to a particular subject you are looking into — in this case nuclear proliferation, a few of whom I knew from previous stories. So I called them, and they not only gave me the necessary context but put me onto others who knew a lot more about Flynn’s activities than he had listed.  

Takeaway: Financial disclosure forms can be a treasure trove of reporting leads.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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