Mueller grand jury probes top DC lob­by­ists

The Standard Journal - - NATIONAL - By Des­mond But­ler

WASHINGTON — Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s grand jury is in­ves­ti­gat­ing a prom­i­nent Demo­cratic lob­by­ist and a for­mer GOP con­gress­man for their in­volve­ment in an in­flu­ence cam­paign on be­half of Ukrainian in­ter­ests tied to Paul Manafort, ac­cord­ing to a per­son with di­rect knowl­edge of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

At the cen­ter of the widen­ing probe are Tony Podesta, a long­time Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive, and Vin We­ber, a for­mer GOP con­gress­man and leader of his own high-pow­ered lob­by­ing firm, Mer­cury LLC. The two men were hired as part of a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar lob­by­ing ef­fort di­rected by Manafort and long­time as­so­ciate Rick Gates.

With the em­pha­sis on the Ukrainian lob­by­ing ef­forts, Mueller’s crim­i­nal probe is mov­ing be­yond in­ves­ti­gat­ing ties be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia and is ag­gres­sively pur­su­ing peo­ple who worked as for­eign agents with­out reg­is­ter­ing with the Jus­tice Depart­ment. More wit­nesses are ex­pected be­fore the grand jury in com­ing weeks.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for We­ber’s firm and Podesta said they are co­op­er­at­ing with the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Podesta, whose brother was the chair­man of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign, has re­signed from his firm.

FBI agents work­ing for Mueller are ask­ing wit­nesses about meet­ings be­tween Gates, Podesta and We­ber to dis­cuss the lob­by­ing work in de­tail and any com­mu­ni­ca­tion with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a pro-Rus­sian Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal party, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the in­ter­views who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“There were ques­tions about how much Podesta and Vin We­ber were in­volved. There was a lot of in­ter­est there,” one of them said.

FBI agents also ex­pressed in­ter­est in the law firm Skad­den, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, which pro­duced a 2012 re­port used to jus­tify the jail­ing of an op­po­si­tion politician in Ukraine.

Both peo­ple said that in­ves­ti­ga­tors on Mueller’s team have asked about what the lob­by­ists knew about the source of the fund­ing and who was di­rect­ing the work in 2012 — long be­fore Manafort be­came Trump’s cam­paign chair­man in 2016.

Gates and Manafort were both in­dicted on charges of act­ing as un­reg­is­tered for­eign agents and ly­ing on forms they filed with the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act unit as well as money laun­der­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Manafort’s in­dict­ment, he and Gates “en­gaged in weekly and at times daily calls and emails with (com­pany 1 and com­pany 2) to pro­vide them di­rec­tions as to spe­cific lob­by­ing steps that should be taken and to re­ceive re­ports back as to the re­sults of such lob­by­ing.” The two firms were the Podesta Group and Mer­cury.

In ad­di­tion, Manafort’s and Gates’ 2017 dis­clo­sure forms “mis­rep­re­sented the re­la­tion­ship among (the Tar­gets), the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment, the Euro­pean Cen­tre for a Mod­ern Ukraine (ECFMU), and two U.S. lob­by­ing firms,” the gov­ern­ment said.

Mer­cury and Podesta’s work in­volved a non-profit called the Euro­pean Cen­tre for a Mod­ern Ukraine. Peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the ef­forts have de­scribed the non-profit as a front to dis­guise an in­flu­ence cam­paign on be­half of the party of Ukraine’s then-pres­i­dent, Vik­tor Yanukovych. It was gov­erned by a board that ini­tially in­cluded par­lia­ment mem­bers from Yanukovych’s party and sub­se­quently paid at least $2.2 mil­lion to the lob­by­ing firms to ad­vo­cate po­si­tions gen­er­ally in line with those of Yanukovych’s gov­ern­ment.

Podesta ac­knowl­edged to the AP in 2016 that Gates had been in­volved in the Euro­pean Cen­ter’s work, but said he had no idea the or­ga­ni­za­tion was not a le­git­i­mately in­de­pen­dent client.

Skad­den’s in­volve­ment with Manafort stems from its pro­duc­tion of a 2012 re­port down­play­ing the po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tions of the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment in jail­ing an op­po­si­tion leader, Yu­lia Ty­moshenko.

Andrew Harnik / The As­so­ci­ated Press

Paul Manafort, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s for­mer cam­paign chair­man, leaves Fed­eral Dis­trict Court in Washington.

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