U.S. jury acquits Russian on charges he lied to FBI over 'Steele dossier'

FILE PHOTO - An FBI logo is pictured on an agent's shirt in the Manhattan borough of New York City

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A Russian researcher who contributed explosive details to a document dubbed the "Steele dossier" that alleged ties between former U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia was acquitted by a jury on Tuesday on charges that he lied to the FBI about the sources of his information.

Igor Danchenko's acquittal in federal court in Washington dealt another blow to Special Counsel John Durham, who was appointed in 2019 by Trump-era Attorney General William Barr to investigate the FBI's "Crossfire Hurricane" probe into whether members of Trump's campaign had colluded with Russia.

Jurors acquitted Danchenko on four charges. The judge in the case earlier had thrown out a fifth charge.

"While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury's decision and thank them for their service," Durham said in a statement.

In another trial of a defendant charged by Durham, a jury in Washington in May acquitted Michael Sussmann, an attorney for Democrat Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, of charges that he lied to the FBI when he passed along a later-discredited tip about possible communications between Trump's business and a Russian bank.

Danchenko, a Russian-born researcher who resides in Northern Virginia, was indicted by Durham's office in 2021 on five counts of making false statements to FBI agents in 2017 about the sources of information he provided to former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

His attorneys argued that the indictment was baseless, saying their client's answers to the FBI's often "ambiguous" questions were "literally" true and not material.

For instance, Danchenko was accused of misleading the FBI by claiming he never "talked" to Charles Dolan, a Democratic operative and public relations executive, about anything in the Steele dossier, when in fact they had communicated in writing.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga said last week he agreed with the defense, and he dismissed one of the five charges against Danchenko related to his communications with Dolan.

The judge allowed the other four charges to be decided by the jury. Those charges accused Danchenko of lying to the FBI by claiming he had spoken to Sergei Millian, the former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, to gather information later used in the dossier.

Danchenko's lawyers maintained their client received an anonymous call from a person who Danchenko suspected was Millian, but he told agents he was not certain it was him.

Steele was hired by a U.S.-based research firm called Fusion GPS, which in turn was retained by Sussmann's law firm on behalf of Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee to dig up dirt on Trump. The dossier contained salacious details about Trump, many of which have never been substantiated.

Trenga placed strict limits on what Durham's team could present as evidence to the jury, including ruling that the scandalous allegations about "Donald Trump's alleged sexual activity" in a Moscow hotel were off limits, finding they were not direct evidence and their relevancy was questionable.

An investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general later found that the FBI improperly continued to rely on unsubstantiated allegations in the Steele dossier when it applied for court-approved warrant applications to monitor the communications of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

A former FBI attorney, Kevin Clinesmith, was later prosecuted by Durham and pleaded guilty to falsifying a document used in the law enforcement agency's warrant applications.

Another special counsel, Robert Mueller, conducted an investigation that documented contacts between Trump's campaign and Russians, but his final report concluded there was not enough evidence to establish that the campaign had engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone and Tim Ahmann)