When Special Counsel Robert Mueller came across information related to his Russia probe but not central to his mandate, he referred it to authorities in New York. According to The Associated Press, those DOJ prosecutors now are actively investigating two lobbying firms – Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs – that worked for Paul Manafort, who had foreign government clients.
The New York work underscores the broad effects of Mueller’s investigation, extending well beyond the central question of President Donald 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.
Mueller’s referral also involved Greg Craig, a former White House counsel for President Barack Obama. Craig supervised a report authored 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.
It’s unclear if the renewed interest will produce charges or if prosecutors are merely following up on Mueller’s referral.
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 ...
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 doing the lobbying, neither the Podesta Group nor Mercury registered as foreign agents under a U.S. law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires lobbyists to declare publicly if they represent foreign leaders, governments or their political parties.
To secretly fund the lobbying and to avoid registration with the Justice Department, Manafort said he along with unidentified “others” arranged for the firms to be hired by a Brussels-based nonprofit, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, rather than the Ukrainian political interests directly.
Mercury and Podesta, which were paid a combined $2 million on the project, then registered under a less stringent lobbying law that doesn’t require as much public disclosure as FARA.
Both firms have said they registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, rather than FARA, on the advice of lawyers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Craig’s former firm.
Both firms have since registered under FARA. 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.
Prosecutors say employees of both companies “referred to the client in ways that made clear they knew it was Ukraine.”