October 15, 2018 / 10:03 PM / a month ago

UPDATE 1-Ex-US Senate staffer pleads guilty to lying about contact with reporters

(Adds comment from Watkins’ lawyer)

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (Reuters) - James Wolfe, a former senior staffer on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, pleaded guilty to a charge that he lied to the FBI about contacts with reporters, the Justice Department said on Monday.

Wolfe pleaded guilty in a federal court in Washington, D.C., to one count of lying, the Department said, adding that two remaining counts of making false statements would be dismissed when Wolfe is sentenced.

Wolfe, 57, was indicted earlier this year after prosecutors said he had lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation by claiming he had not been in contact with any reporter and did not disclose any information to journalists that he had learned while working for the committee.

Wolfe was not accused of leaking classified materials. However, in pleading guilty, he acknowledged that he shared non-public information with a reporter using the encrypted application Signal about a witness who had been subpoenaed to appear before the committee. He also admitted to lying about his exchanges with other reporters.

The case against Wolfe was centered particularly on his exchange with a reporter who later published an article in April 2017 describing how former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had been in contact with a Russian intelligence operative in 2013.

Such an article as described in the court records was published on the BuzzFeed website under the byline of Ali Watkins, now a New York Times reporter.

The newspaper later reported that investigators had secretly seized Watkins’ telephone and email records.

“We emphasize again today that Jim was never charged with having compromised classified information, nor is such a charge part of today’s plea,” Wolfe’s legal team at the law firm Buckley Sandler LLP said in a statement.

Mark MacDougall, a lawyer for Watkins, said: “The fact that the offence to which Mr. Wolfe pled guilty did not involve Ali tells an important part of the story.”

The Times had previously said that Watkins had a three-year romantic relationship with Wolfe. Both Wolfe and Watkins have denied that Wolfe leaked information to her.

In July, the Times said Watkins had been transferred out of the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., bureau and reassigned to New York.

The Times did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Lying to the FBI carries a prison sentence of up to five years. However, under U.S. sentencing guidelines, defendants typically receive far less-severe punishments, particularly if they do not have a criminal record.

Wolfe is to be sentenced on Dec. 20. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; editing by Bill Berkrot and Dan Grebler)

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