WASHINGTON (AFP) - The Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing an alleged scheme to pay women to accuse Russia collusion probe chief Robert Mueller of sexual harassment in a bid to discredit him, his office said on Tuesday (Oct 30).
The scheme was uncovered after a woman who said she worked for Mr Mueller decades ago told several journalists she had been offered US$20,000 (S$27,700) to accuse him of sexual misconduct.
"When we learnt last week of allegations that women were offered money to make false claims about the special counsel, we immediately referred the matter to the FBI for investigation," Mr Mueller's spokesman Peter Carr said.
Mr Carr did not offer any additional details, but his rare public statement made clear that Mr Mueller's office was taking the claims seriously.
When a matter is referred to the FBI, the agency must investigate the merits of the complaint.
Mr Carr's statement came on the same day that a conservative radio and podcast host known for promoting conspiracy theories, Mr Jack Burkman, announced plans to "unveil the first of the sex assault victims of Robert Mueller" on Thursday.
Mr Burkman denied offering payments as part of the alleged scheme, calling the claims "false".
"The left is trying to defend Mueller against sex assault allegations so they attack me in desperation," he said on Twitter.
"The establishment media knows that Mueller may go down over this - they want to deflect attention."
Mr Mueller is a former FBI director tasked last year with investigating allegations that members of President Donald Trump's campaign team colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election in his favour.
The probe has expanded to examine possible attempts by Mr Trump himself to obstruct the investigation, which could - if proven - lead to the President's impeachment.
The former marine has a spotless reputation as an attorney, federal prosecutor and FBI chief. So far, his probe has issued 35 indictments and obtained six guilty pleas and one trial conviction.
But Mr Trump and Republicans have labelled his investigation as biased and overextended, with Mr Trump branding it the "illegal Mueller witch hunt".
News of the alleged smear scheme came just one week before midterm congressional elections in which Mr Mueller's investigation casts a cloud over Republicans.
The Hill Reporter website said the scheme surfaced after they and several other news outlets were contacted by an anonymous woman saying she had been offered cash by a man to make allegations against Mr Mueller.
She told the reporters in an e-mail sent on Oct 18 that a man offered her US$20,000 and would pay off her large credit card debt to do so, according to the Hill Reporter.
"I want you to make accusations of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment against Robert Mueller, and I want you to sign a sworn affidavit to that effect," she quoted the man as saying.
The woman - who has since been unreachable - said that the person who contacted her claimed to work for Mr Burkman, the Hill Reporter said.
Mr Burkman hosts a podcast on NewsmaxTV, part of the Newsmax Media group led by Mr Chris Ruddy, a close Trump confidant.
He first claimed to have evidence of Mueller misbehaviour, including alcoholism and sexual assault, on Oct 20, two days after the mysterious woman e-mailed the reporters.