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House ethics panel: Nunes didn't leak classified information

The Associated Press — By TOM LoBIANCO and MARY CLARE JALONICK - Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Ethics Committee on Thursday cleared the chairman of the House intelligence committee on a complaint that he may have leaked classified information, paving the way for Rep. Devin Nunes to again lead his panel's probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The Ethics Committee said in a brief statement that it determined Nunes, a California Republican, did not release classified material while talking about information he had received on a clandestine trip to the White House in April. Nunes had stepped aside from the Russia probe pending the ethics investigation and amid criticism that he was too close to the White House.

If Nunes were to return to the investigation, it would put a close ally of President Donald Trump at the head of one of the congressional investigations into whether Russia coordinated with his campaign. Nunes was part of Trump's transition team after the election and had questioned suggestions of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Texas Rep. Mike Conaway has led the probe in Nunes' absence.

Citing intelligence experts, the Ethics Committee said it determined that Nunes did not publicly reveal classified information when he discussed secret documents he reviewed on the White House grounds earlier this year. When the committee opened its probe of Nunes in April, Nunes said he would step aside temporarily, pending the ethics review. He has remained close to the investigation, though, retaining access to documents and subpoena power as the chairman of the intelligence panel.

Nunes said in a statement Thursday night he was angry the review sidelined him for eight months and said it was prompted by partisan criticism. He also said he wanted the panel to release its transcripts of its interviews with him.

Two watchdog groups, Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, had requested the inquiry into whether Nunes disclosed classified information he learned from intelligence reports. At a news conference in March after the trip to the White House, Nunes had said that communications involving Trump associates had been swept up by U.S. spy agencies and, he suggested, mishandled by the Obama administration.

He said then that he had met with a secret source at the White House to review material and then briefed the president. Watchdog groups said Nunes had apparently violated House rules by publicly disclosing the existence of a foreign surveillance warrant.

Nunes did not say in Thursday's statement if he would retake control of the House Russia investigation. A Nunes spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment on that Thursday evening.

The announcement comes as the House panel has stepped up its pace of interviews in the probe, meeting with dozens of important witnesses as they eye a finish next year.

On Wednesday the committee interviewed Donald Trump Jr., Trump's oldest son, about a 2016 meeting he and other campaign officials held with Russians, among other issues. On Thursday, one person familiar with the investigation said House investigators asked Trump Jr. about a series of emails between some participants at the meeting after it occurred. The source spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

CNN reported that Rob Goldstone, a publicist representing a Moscow-based family who had partnered with the Trump Organization on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Russia, wrote a follow-up email to Trump social media director and confidant Dan Scavino following the June 2016 meeting. CNN reported that none of the newly disclosed emails were sent directly to Trump Jr., who has said there was no follow-up to the meeting.

The Trump Tower meeting is a matter of keen interest to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is also investigating the meddling. Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law, attended the meeting with several Russian operatives under the impression that they might receive damaging information about the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Goldstone helped set up the meeting.

Another email sent June 14, 2016, from Goldstone to one of the participants in the meeting, Ike Kaveladze, included a screenshot of a CNN story about Russia being suspected in a hack of Democratic National Committee electronic files. The email said the story "seems eerily weird based on our Trump meeting last week with the Russian lawyers, etc."

It is unclear what is meant by the email, which was read to The Associated Press. Kaveladze was at the meeting as a representative of the same Moscow-based family that Goldstone was representing.

Scott Balber, a lawyer for Kaveladze, said: "We have no idea what it's a reference to. It's completely out of the blue. Ike thought it was bizarre because it had nothing to do with what was discussed at the meeting the week before."

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.