politics

Mueller Plays Hardball With Manafort, Sending a Message to Others

Updated on
  • Allegations suggest corrupt intent to cover improper lobbying
  • Working with Ukraine fixer who’d been tied to Russian intel
Mueller Asked A Judge To Revise Manafort's Home Confinement

Paul Manafort’s attempts to contact witnesses in his criminal case not only deepens his legal peril, but also sends a chilling message to others under Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s scrutiny.

Already charged with multiple crimes, Manafort attempted early this year to get people at a public relations firm to lie about a lobbying project several years earlier, Mueller’s office said Monday. That, prosecutors said, amounted to attempted witness-tampering by President Donald Trump’s onetime campaign chairman.

Ratcheting up the pressure on Manafort, Mueller’s team is asking a judge to review his house arrest and to consider jailing him as he awaits trial this summer. Manafort, under constant surveillance, used encrypted messaging channels to obscure that he’d organized pro-Ukraine lobbying in the U.S. as well as Europe, prosecutors said. The call records and text messages they presented suggest a corrupt intent, essentially that Manafort was attempting to cover up improper lobbying in the U.S.

“Mueller’s action should send a message loud and clear -- as Mueller’s prosecutions of false statements should -- that Mueller takes extremely seriously attempts to distort our system of justice and the rule of law,” said former Manhattan federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah.

It’s a warning to anyone questioned by his team who fabricates stories or tries to coordinate a coverup. While the full extent of Mueller’s inquiry isn’t clear, he’s questioning others about their accounts of key meetings. These include a pre-election Trump Tower gathering attended by a Russian lawyer and a pre-inauguration meeting in the Seychelles that included a Trump associate, Erik Prince, and the head of a Russian wealth fund. Mueller may not yet have posed questions about such meetings to Trump family members or key confidantes.

Prosecutors said a key participant in the effort to whitewash Manafort’s lobbying work was his longtime associate in Ukraine, a person who people familiar with the matter identified as Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik had worked with Manafort in Ukraine for a decade. But by February, when their flurry of texts and calls began, he appeared to be a risky ally given contemporary reports about his links to Russian intelligence and U.S. filings that showed Mueller had access to some of the pair’s conversations.

Jason Maloni, a spokesman, said Manafort is innocent. “Nothing about this latest allegation changes our defense. We will do our talking in court,” Maloni said.

A hearing is scheduled for June 15 in federal court in Washington, on Mueller’s request to revoke Manafort’s $10 million bail over the witness-tampering allegations and consider tightening his pre-trial supervision program. Manafort is also defending against charges of tax and bank fraud in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Unregistered Lobbying

Mueller’s filing fleshes out the Ukrainian advocacy that prosecutors say Manafort failed to register in violation of U.S. lobbying laws. As part of his effort, Manafort lined up former European political luminaries to work in secret on behalf of Ukraine and Manafort’s client, then-President Viktor Yanokovych.

Through the so-called Hapsburg Group, the politicians -- said to include Italy’s former prime minster Romano Prodi -- were paid more than 2 million euros ($2.34 million) from overseas accounts controlled by Manafort. They lobbied and conducted public relations work in Europe and the U.S. in 2012 and 2013, U.S. prosecutors said in court filings.

Manafort hired a public relations firm to work on a European and U.S. media strategy from 2011 and 2012 to “tell the true story” about former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was tried for abuse of office and jailed for seven years at the end of 2011, according to documents released by Mueller’s prosecutors. The firm wasn’t identified. Tymoshenko’s trial and subsequent conviction was widely viewed as an attempt by Manafort’s then-client, Yanokovych, to undermine a political rival.

Ongoing Ties

Following Manafort’s late October 2017 indictment, filings by Mueller made several references to his partner in Ukraine. That person, later identified as Kilimnik, has been described in filings as a onetime Russian intelligence officer. The FBI considered those ties to be ongoing during the U.S. presidential campaign, prosecutors later wrote. Kilimnik has denied ever working for Russian intelligence.

Kilimnik, who was also an intermediary between Manafort and Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, made recurring appearance in Manafort’s case files. Kilimnik figured prominently in December, when Mueller accused Manafort of improperly commenting on his case in public. Prosecutors pointed to a draft of an op-ed piece for the Kyiv Post, in Microsoft Word, that Manafort and Kilimnik had been bouncing back and forth by email just days before.

Mueller’s superseding indictment of Manafort in February revealed for the first time the work of the Hapsburg Group. While the indictment didn’t identify any of the former leaders, other documents point to Prodi as well as Alfred Gusenbauer, a former chancellor of Austria, and Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former president of Poland.

Prodi and Gusenbauer said their advocacy of better relations between Ukraine and the European Union included a bid to dissuade U.S. senators from condemning the Tymoshenko prosecution as politically motivated. In interviews or statements after the indictment, all denied being paid by Manafort. U.S. law requires lobbyists for foreign governments to register their work. Manafort hadn’t.

Encrypted Texts

Within hours of the Feb. 23 indictment, according to the latest filing, Manafort began making calls and writing encrypted texts.

He phoned one of the lobbyists on Feb. 24, a call that lasted less than a minute and a half. Two minutes later he wrote by encrypted text: “This is paul.” The recipient didn’t respond. Manafort sent another encrypted text two days later: “We should talk.”

Kilimnik pressed into action, too.

“Basically P wants to give him a quick summary that he says to everybody (which is true) that our friends never lobbied in the U.S., and the purpose of the program was E.U.,” the Manafort associate wrote in a Feb. 28 WhatsApp message, according to the filings.

In many cases, the lobbyists didn’t answer calls or respond to texts. One of them “has told the government that he understood Manafort’s outreach to be an effort to ‘suborn perjury,’” because the person “knew that the Hapsburg Group worked in the United States -- not just Europe,” according to court documents.

The executives at the PR firm kept encrypted text messages from Manafort and his associate and handed them over to the government, according to the filing.

Mueller’s team is “leaving no stone unturned and pursuing every legal recourse available to them,” said Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan. “This is an incredibly thorough and professional investigation and prosecution.”

(Updates with legal expert’s comment in final paragraph.)
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