Manafort lob­by­ist in­quiry revs up

Scru­tiny on work for Ukraine an­other strand of Mueller web

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - National - ERIC TUCKER, DES­MOND BUT­LER AND CHAD DAY

WASH­ING­TON — Spin­ning off from the spe­cial coun­sel’s Rus­sia probe, pros­e­cu­tors are ramp­ing up their in­ves­ti­ga­tion into for­eign lob­by­ing by two ma­jor Wash­ing­ton firms that did work for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s for­mer cam­paign chair­man, Paul Manafort, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion had been quiet for months since spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller re­ferred it to au­thor­i­ties in Man­hat­tan be­cause it fell out­side his man­date of de­ter­min­ing whether the Trump cam­paign co­or­di­nated with Rus­sia.

But in a flurry of new ac­tiv­ity, Jus­tice De­part­ment pros­e­cu­tors in the past sev­eral weeks have be­gun in­ter­view­ing wit­nesses and con­tact­ing lawyers to sched­ule ad­di­tional ques­tion­ing re­lated to the Podesta Group and Mer­cury Pub­lic Af­fairs, the peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the in­quiry said. They spoke to The As­so­ci­ated Press on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the on­go­ing work.

The New York work un­der­scores the broad ef­fects of Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, ex­tend­ing well be­yond the cen­tral ques­tion of Trump and col­lu­sion. Mueller has made clear that he will not turn away if he dis­cov­ers al­leged crimes out­side the scope of his in­quiry; in­stead, he refers them out in in­ves­ti­ga­tions that may linger on even af­ter the spe­cial coun­sel’s work con­cludes. Other Jus­tice De­part­ment re­fer­rals from Mueller have ended in guilty pleas, in­clud­ing the hush-money pay­ment case of for­mer Trump lawyer Michael Co­hen.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­flects how Mueller, in latch­ing on to an ob­scure law, has shined a light on high-dol­lar lob­by­ing prac­tices that have helped for­eign gov­ern­ments find pow­er­ful al­lies and ad­vo­cates in Wash­ing­ton. It’s a prac­tice that has spanned both par­ties and en­riched count­less for­mer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, who have lev­er­aged their con­nec­tions to in­flu­ence Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

In New York, Mueller’s re­fer­ral prompted a fresh look at the lob­by­ing firms of Wash­ing­ton in­sid­ers Tony Podesta and Vin We­ber, who have faced scru­tiny for their de­ci­sions not to reg­is­ter as for­eign agents for Ukrainian lob­by­ing work di­rected by Manafort.

Podesta is a long­time Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive whose brother, John Podesta, ran Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign; We­ber is a for­mer Repub­li­can con­gress­man from Min­nesota. Nei­ther man has been charged with any crimes. Their firms have de­fended the de­ci­sions by say­ing they re­lied on the ad­vice of out­side at­tor­neys.

Mueller’s re­fer­ral also in­volved Greg Craig, a for­mer White House coun­sel for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. Craig su­per­vised a re­port writ­ten on be­half of the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment, and Mueller’s team has said Manafort helped Ukraine hide that it paid more than $4 mil­lion for the work. CNN re­ported in Septem­ber that pros­e­cu­tors were weigh­ing charges against Craig.

Lawyers for We­ber and Craig and a spokesman for Podesta de­clined to com­ment. The U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Man­hat­tan didn’t re­turn an email seek­ing com­ment.

Mer­cury spokesman Michael McKeon said the firm has “al­ways wel­comed any in­quiry since we acted ap­pro­pri­ately at ev­ery step of the process, in­clud­ing hir­ing a top lawyer in Wash­ing­ton and fol­low­ing his ad­vice. We’ll con­tinue to co­op­er­ate as we have pre­vi­ously.”

For­eign-lob­by­ing work was cen­tral to Mueller’s case against Manafort and his long­time as­so­ciate Rick Gates, two high-pro­file Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials who pleaded guilty ear­lier this year and have been in­ter­viewed ex­ten­sively by pros­e­cu­tors.

The Podestas have been fre­quent tar­gets of Trump and his as­so­ci­ates, who have re­peat­edly de­manded to know why Tony Podesta has not been ar­rested and charged. Trump con­fi­dant Roger Stone, for in­stance, has in­sisted a 2016 tweet of his that ap­peared to pre­dict the re­lease by Wik­iLeaks of John Podesta’s emails — “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the bar­rel” — was in­stead a ref­er­ence to the broth­ers’ for­eign-lob­by­ing ac­tiv­i­ties get­ting them into the hot seat.

In Septem­ber, Manafort ad­mit­ted to di­rect­ing Mer­cury and the Podesta Group to lobby in the U.S. on be­half of a Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal party and Ukraine’s gov­ern­ment then led by Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych, Manafort’s long­time po­lit­i­cal pa­tron.

While car­ry­ing out the lob­by­ing, nei­ther the Podesta Group nor the Mer­cury Group reg­is­tered as for­eign agents un­der a U.S. law known as the For­eign Agents Regis­tra­tion Act, which re­quires lob­by­ists to de­clare pub­licly if they rep­re­sent for­eign lead­ers, gov­ern­ments or their po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

The Jus­tice De­part­ment has rarely pros­e­cuted such cases, which carry up to five years in prison, but has taken a more ag­gres­sive tack lately.

Both firms have since reg­is­tered un­der the For­eign Agents Regis­tra­tion Act. But in court pa­pers filed along­side Manafort’s plea agree­ment, Mueller’s pros­e­cu­tors sug­gested the firms were aware they were work­ing on Ukraine’s be­half.

Mueller’s team also noted that “the head of” the Podesta Group, an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to Tony Podesta, told his team to think the pres­i­dent of Ukraine “is the client.”

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