Investigators looking into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia will be able to pursue leads by tapping into a huge database of suspicious financial transactions maintained by the federal government.
Under the Bank Secrecy Act, financial institutions operating in the U.S. are supposed to inform the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, when they see transactions that indicate possible money laundering, such as all-cash purchases of expensive real estate.
Senate investigators indicated last week that they would be using the database to begin tracking the financial activities of some of President Trump's associates.
"Congress has kind of shifted the focus here to the money, and they're trying to see if there's a money trail that could link and identify different participants," says Jimmy Gurulé, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and a former Treasury Department official.
"It goes to the old adage of 'follow the money.' If there was collusion between the Russians and members of the Trump campaign, was it for free or was there some exchange of moneys or payments from foreign governments?" he adds.
Trump made much of his fortune in real estate and gaming, two industries that have been notorious venues for money laundering.
The Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, which opened in 1990 and closed in 2016, was repeatedly cited for having inadequate money-laundering controls, not an unusual charge in the gaming business.
FinCEN fined the casino $10 million in 2015, although Trump had long before declared bankruptcy and had little real involvement in the property.
In more recent years, FinCEN has focused on the real estate business, looking for unusual purchases of properties that indicate money laundering is taking place.
For drug dealers and corrupt government officials, there's often no better way to conceal their funds from regulators and tax collectors than by buying high-end properties in places such as New York, Miami and San Francisco, says Mark Hays, who heads the anti-money-laundering campaign at the nonprofit Global Witness.
"These make for attractive landing pads, if, say, you're a suspicious person wanted for criminal activity in your home country and you actually need a place to cool your jets," Hays says.
Such purchases can be easily hidden by using shell corporations and secret bank accounts, making it harder for regulators to track them, he notes.
"You make the purchase [and the] real estate person says, 'Who owns this company?' It's so-and-so LLC. 'Well, who owns that?' That's not on the record. No one knows that," Hays says.
That makes connecting the dots in money-laundering investigations more difficult. Still, FinCEN's records of suspicious activities could provide Senate investigators with real investigative leads, Gurulé says.
"If I was involved with some criminal wrongdoing related to this investigation, this would make me very nervous," he says.
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Federal investigators are looking into banking records to examine the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. One thing they're looking for is evidence of money laundering. Now, U.S. officials keep records of suspicious financial transactions, and these records may be key to exploring Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. NPR's Jim Zarroli has more.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: President Trump has spent much of his career in real estate and casinos. And these two industries have one thing in common - both are notorious venues for money laundering. It's something Trump had to contend with in 1990 when he opened the glittering Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In a space the size of three football fields there are over 3,000 slots, some taking $100 chips, plus 167 gaming tables.
ZARROLI: Within a few years, the Taj was cited by federal officials for having inadequate money laundering controls. Fred Gushin, a longtime gaming industry consultant, says fines like these were common at the time.
FRED GUSHIN: His level of compliance was no better or worse than everybody else's in Atlantic City. It took time for these regulations to take effect. There were some early violations by almost every casino in Atlantic City at that point in time.
ZARROLI: Over the years, the Taj was repeatedly cited for violations. And in 2015, when Trump was much less involved with the property, it had to pay a civil fine of $10 million. The agency behind the fine was the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN. It's responsible for tracking suspected money laundering - that is, hiding illicit funds from regulators and tax collectors.
Lately, FinCEN has been concentrating on real estate. Mark Hays is with Global Witness, which campaigns for tighter money laundering laws. Hays says if you're a drug dealer or a corrupt government official, one great way to stash your ill-gotten gains is buying and selling expensive properties in places such as New York and Miami.
MARK HAYS: These make for attractive landing pads if, say, you're a suspicious person wanted for criminal activity in your home country and you actually need a place to cool your jets.
ZARROLI: This is especially true of high-end properties that attract a lot of foreign buyers, such as Trump's. Hays says such transactions are easily shrouded through shell companies.
HAYS: You make the purchase. The real estate person says, who owns this company? It's so-and-so LLC. Well, who owns that? Well, that's not on the record. No one knows that.
ZARROLI: Still, banks and real estate companies are required to tell FinCEN about suspicious transactions such as all-cash purchases of large properties. And over the years, FinCEN has built an extensive database of possibly shady transactions. Senate investigators have already said they will use it to examine the ties between Russia and Trump associates. Notre Dame law professor Jimmy Gurule.
JIMMY GURULE: Congress has kind of shifted the focus here to the money. And they're trying to see if there's a money trail that could link and identify different participants.
ZARROLI: Gurule, who used to oversee FinCEN at the Treasury Department, says the agency's database could provide investigators with important leads.
GURULE: If there was collusion between the Russians and members of the Trump campaign, I mean, was it for free? Or was there some exchange of monies or payments from foreign governments?
ZARROLI: And Gurule says if someone in the Trump campaign was involved with criminal activity, that should make them very nervous indeed. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.