The FBI's top national security official had dozens of improper meetings with journalists and accepted tickets from one journalist to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, interactions that FBI officials said were a "no-no" and "dangerous."
Michael Steinbach, who served as an FBI executive assistant director, failed to report the gifts on his federal financial disclosures, according to an inspector general report obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. He met regularly from 2014 until his abrupt retirement in February 2017 with 7 reporters and had contact with 21 others. His interactions with journalists overlapped with his work on major counterterrorism cases and Crossfire Hurricane, the ill-fated investigation into collusion between the 2016 Donald Trump campaign and Russia.
The report, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, is the latest example of a top FBI official accepting gifts from journalists. The former head of FBI public affairs, Michael Kortan, received baseball game tickets and other gifts from CNN and New York Times reporters. Journalists also plied Steinbach's former deputy, Bryan Paarmann, with a variety of gifts.
The FBI prohibits employees from accepting gifts from a "prohibited source"—a category that includes journalists—without prior authorization. FBI officials told the inspector general that off-the-books meetings like Steinbach's could "lead to a lot of problems" within the bureau.
"You never know what can be said. You don't know under what conditions it can be said. So it can lead to a lot of problems," an FBI official told the inspector general's office.
Steinbach is not accused of leaking classified or sensitive information, but the inspector general's report details numerous conversations he had with journalists about breaking news stories. The watchdog also determined that reporters gave gifts to Steinbach "because of his official positions with the FBI."
Steinbach eagerly sought invitations to swanky media industry parties, such as the Radio-Television Correspondents' Dinner and the White House Correspondents' Association's annual gala. According to text messages and emails in the watchdog report, Steinbach on March 25, 2015, began soliciting an unnamed reporter for tickets to the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Steinbach attended the next year's event and an afterparty, according to the report. Steinbach did not disclose the gift, which was valued at $300.
Steinbach's host is not identified, but text messages show him joking with a journalist from a different outlet about attending the gala.
"I put you on the map and now you're cheating on me with [reporter's first and last name]?" a CNN reporter wrote Steinbach in April 2016.
"I kept waiting for my invite from you," Steinbach replied.
The CNN reporter is not identified, but Steinbach in February 2015 conducted one of his only television interviews, with CNN's Pamela Brown.
Steinbach in an email after the dinner thanked his host. "Thanks for hanging out with us last night," Steinbach wrote in an email titled "Great Night." He told the reporter he "would love to grab … drinks" at some point in the future.
It is unclear where the reporter worked, but some news organizations have policies against reporters giving gifts to sources. The Los Angeles Times, for example, prohibits staff members "from accepting gifts from or giving gifts to news sources, potential news sources, or those who seek to influence coverage."
Steinbach is one of several officials who worked under ex-FBI director James Comey to run afoul of FBI guidelines. Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was fired in 2018 after the inspector general found he lied in October 2016 to internal investigators about authorizing leaks to the media regarding an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Peter Strzok, who oversaw the Crossfire Hurricane probe, was fired after the discovery of anti-Trump text messages on his FBI cell phones.
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment. Steinbach, who is now head of fraud prevention at Citi, did not respond to a request for comment.