WASHINGTON -- A Democratic senator is asking Attorney General William Barr whether "political pressure" is limiting a probe into the hacking of environmental groups in light of Barr's ouster of the chief U.S. prosecutor in Manhattan.
"The risk is obvious that the investigation will be slow-walked or curtailed" because of President Donald Trump's donors and allies in the oil and gas industries, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said in a letter to Barr.
The Rhode Island lawmaker, a former U.S. attorney, said hacking was directed at "environmental groups and others active in efforts to hold oil and gas companies accountable for having lied about climate science and obstructed government action to limit the carbon pollution causing climate change."
The Southern District of New York, where Barr removed Geoffrey Berman from his role as U.S. attorney last month, has been investigating the case as well as others that touch on people close to Trump. Berman initially refused to step aside but relented after Barr agreed to make his top deputy the office's acting chief prosecutor.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan declined to comment on the letter from Whitehouse.
The investigation involves an India-based company called Belltrox Infotech Services, which authorities suspect was running a hacking-for-hire operation whose ultimate beneficiaries were major corporations seeking to undermine investigative journalists, advocacy groups and short-sellers. Belltrox didn't respond to requests for comment sent last month to multiple email accounts associated with the company and its officers.
The hackers targeted hundreds of potential victims with phishing emails that, when successful, enabled them to pilfer electronic communications.
The targets allegedly included hedge fund firms Coatue Management LLC and Blue Ridge Capital LLC; nonprofit groups fighting climate change and telecom industry control of the internet; and reporters from news organizations. The services were rendered under the guise of corporate intelligence or litigation preparation, with layers of law firms, private investigation firms and other middlemen in between, according to court documents and researchers.
Though the specific identities of the companies isn't yet clear, the work appears to have benefited industries including telecoms and fossil fuel companies and the embattled German financial technology firm Wirecard AG. A Wirecard spokeswoman, Iris Stoeckl, said her company hasn't been in contact, either directly or indirectly, with a hacker group in India and acted legally in investigating short sellers and critics of the firm.
An Israeli private investigator has been charged in the case and has pleaded not guilty.
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