The technology company to which Cardinal Angelo Becciu authorized millions of dollars of payments in Australia has been named in an emerging U.S. political scandal, raising new questions about the Vatican’s business with the firm.
Neustar, a technology and security company, has been named in pretrial motions filed by John Durham, the special counsel investigating the handling of a 2016 inquiry into alleged Russian interference in the U.S. general election. The company has also featured in the ongoing Vatican financial scandal and trial, with Cardinal Becciu facing questions over millions of dollars of “classified” payments he authorized to the company.
The cardinal has declined to elaborate on the Secretariat of State's need for classified services from a telecommunications security and intelligence firm.
The filing in U.S. court, updated on Friday last week, relates to a case Durham has brought against a cybersecurity lawyer affiliated with the Democratic Party, Michael Sussman.
According to the New York Times, Sussman told the CIA in 2017 about suspicious data activity from devices connected to networks at Trump Tower in Manhattan and the White House, and flagged potential links to Russia.
Sussman allegedly had access to the information via data from servers managed by Neustar and serving both locations. According to the New York Times, Sussman received the data from Rodney Joffe, a client of his, who was until Sept. 2021 the senior vice president and security chief technology officer at Neustar.
In court filings, Durham alleges that Joffe “exploited” Neustar’s access to server data for the purposes of gleaning potentially damaging information on Donald Trump.
Durham has not alleged that Joffe or Neustar were paid for the information, but the alleged use of the data gleaned from sensitive servers linked to the White House has become the focus of considerable media attention and debate.
It also refocuses attention on the company’s links to the Holy See, and to Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the former sostituto at the Secretariat of State currently on trial in Vatican City for abuse of office and a host of financial crimes.
Between 2016-17, the Secretariat of State sent wire transfers amounting to more than 2 million Australian dollars to Neustar’s office in Melbourne. The Pillar has previously reported that Becciu personally authorized two of the payments in writing, and approved the other two.
The payments coincided with the investigation and prosecution of Cardinal George Pell by local police on charges of sexual abuse. Pell was initially convicted on the evidence of a single witness-accuser, before he was exonerated by Australia’s High Court.
The payments from the Vatican, authorized by Becciu, triggered investigations by AUSTRAC, the national financial watchdog, and prompted questions in Australia’s Parliament, however, Victoria state police concluded there was no evidence of criminal activity related to the wire transfers.
At the time the allegations surfaced and the payments to Neustar were made by Becciu, Pell was serving as the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, in charge of imposing Pope Francis’ financial reforms across curial departments.
In that capacity, Pell repeatedly clashed with Becciu over the Secretariat of State’s financial dealings, including investments in a London building which eventually triggered a two-year investigation by Vatican authorities and led to ten individuals, including Becciu, facing criminal charges.
Pell’s departure to face charges in Melbourne in July 2017, came just weeks after Becciu forced the resignation of Libero Milone, the Vatican’s first independent auditor general and a close colleague of Pell’s. Becciu accused Milone of “spying” on his private financial dealings and threatened him with arrest and prosecution if he refused to quit his role.
The timing of Pell’s departure, and the subsequent pause in curial financial reform, has been hotly commented upon in the Italian press, who have linked the Neustar payments to allegations of interference in Pell’s case in Australia.
Becciu has repeatedly denied any link to the allegations against Pell, or interference in his case. He has also repeatedly refused to say what the payments to Neustar were for, telling The Pillar last year that they were related to “official activities by the Secretariat of State which, by nature, are classified and couldn’t be possibly commented on.”
The cardinal has also rebuffed questions from Pell to clarify the nature and purpose of the payments. In December last year, Pell noted Becciu’s reticence to discuss the issue during an interview, and referenced evidence given by Becciu’s former assistant at the Secretariat of State, Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, to Vatican prosecutors.
“[Perlasca] said under interrogation that the money was sent to the bishops’ conference in Australia for my legal defense. That’s certainly not true. We’ve asked the bishops’ conference, they received nothing. We certainly received nothing. So I have one question for Cardinal Becciu: Will he just tell us what the money was sent for?”
Becciu responded to Pell in an open letter released shortly before Christmas, calling Pell’s question “offensive to my personal dignity,” and saying that to respond would be “beneath the dignity of cardinals.”
Instead, Becciu said that he would only discuss his dealings with Neustar, which he called “high, demanding, and certainly confidential,” in court for his trial in Vatican City, when he would answer the “groundless” accusations against him “point by point.”
Becciu has since taken to boycotting the court’s sessions. At the most recent pretrial hearing, the cardinal had his lawyers deliver a letter to the court in which he said that he would not attend because some of the evidence was “harmful to his priestly dignity and offensive to the entire college of cardinals of which he is a member.”
The Vatican court is set to resume hearings on Feb. 18.