Pros­e­cu­tors ramp up for­eign lob­by­ing probe

San Francisco Chronicle - - NATION - By Eric Tucker, Des­mond But­ler and Chad Day Eric Tucker, Des­mond But­ler and Chad Day are As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers.

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 for­mer Trump 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 Pres­i­dent Trump and col­lu­sion. Mueller has made clear 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 Trump’s for­mer lawyer Michael Co­hen.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­flects how Mueller, in latch­ing onto 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.

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.

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