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House panel to probe potential foreign funding of Trump’s inauguration

The incoming Democratic chairman said the topic remains "a matter of interest and concern."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., in line to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, speaks to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., in line to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, speaks to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)Read moreJ. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON - The incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Friday that his panel plans to investigate possible "illicit foreign funding or involvement in the inauguration" of President Donald Trump, an event that was supported by more than $100 million in private donations.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that the committee has examined allegations about improper inaugural funding and that the topic remains "a matter of interest and concern," declining to provide specifics.

"Whenever a foreign nation uses its financial wealth to violate the laws of our country, it undermines our democracy," Schiff said in a statement. "When another country does so in concert with U.S. persons, it carries the additional risk of compromising them and presents a particularly acute counterintelligence risk."

In a statement, the inaugural committee said that it was "in full compliance with all applicable laws and disclosure obligations," adding that "donors were vetted in accordance with the law and no improprieties have been found regarding the vetting of those donors."

The record sums that flowed into Trump's inaugural committee have also drawn the attention of special counsel Robert Mueller III, who has been probing whether foreign money was involved in the event as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

The line of inquiry already resulted in one charge: In late August, an American political consultant, Samuel Patten, admitted steering $50,000 from a Ukrainian politician to the inaugural committee through a straw donor.

Patten pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign lobbyist and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

In the past year, Mueller's team has asked additional witnesses whether they were aware of efforts by foreigners to participate in the inaugural committee, according to people familiar with the questions. Among those questioned was Los Angeles investor Tom Barrack, a close Trump friend who chaired the inaugural committee.

During an interview with Mueller's prosecutors on Dec. 12, 2017, Barrack was asked whether he knew if any foreign donations were made to the inauguration, and he said he did not, according to a person familiar with his testimony. Barrack has not been called back for further questioning.

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors in New York are examining whether the inaugural committee misspent some of its funds. The Washington Post has not independently confirmed that report.

A spokesman for Barrack said Friday that neither Mueller, other federal prosecutors nor congressional officials have requested any records from the committee. Requesting such records would probably be a necessary step for any broad investigation.

In a statement Friday, Barrack said he asked his attorney to check with Mueller's staff this week "to ask if they had any new or additional questions - the answer was no, and he was told I am not under investigation."

He added: "The Special Counsel's staff was both professional and comprehensive back in 2017 when I sat for a voluntary interview. They have shown themselves to be pretty tenacious when they find something they judge worth pursuing."

Patten's case was handled by prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in Washington following a referral from Mueller.

Patten said in court documents that he arranged for an unidentified American citizen to act as a "straw donor" and contribute $50,000 for four tickets to Trump's inauguration in place of a Ukrainian businessman, who as a foreigner was barred from donating to the event.

Prosecutors also alleged that Patten formed a company with a Russian national to engage in lobbying and political consulting services on behalf of a pro-Russian party in the Ukraine.

The description of the Russian national matches that of Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime associate of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort who prosecutors have alleged has ties to Russian intelligence.

Patten told prosecutors that he worked with Kilimnik to help route the illegal donation to Trump's inauguration.

The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.