Primer: What you need to know about Paul Manafort

Primer: What you need to know about Paul Manafort
© Greg Nash

Questions are swirling about the work of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, amid the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the election.

Manafort served as Trump’s presidential campaign chairman from the end of March 2015 until mid-August 2016. He was brought on to help with delegate counts for the Republican National Convention.

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A veteran lobbyist, Manafort has ties to a Russian billionaire and pro-Russian government officials in Ukraine that are now coming under renewed scrutiny. 

Questions about Manafort’s work for foreign governments, and the payments he received, led to his departure from the Trump campaign in August.

As Capitol Hill and federal investigators look into potential connection between Trump associates and Russia, including whether the Kremlin worked to tip the election for Trump, Manafot’s role in the campaign has become a source of intrigue. 

Manafort has offered to be interviewed by the two Intelligence panels in Congress.

Here’s what you need to know about Manafort and how the controversy reached this point.

Manafort was a big-time foreign lobbyist and consultant

Manafort did consulting work for ex-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from about 2006 to 2012. Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014 after protests forced him out of office.

Although it had been previously known that Manafort had worked for the former pro-Russia leader and his political party, the Party of Regions, more details have come to light about the extent of that work and the payments he received. 

More information has also surfaced about the work Manafort over the last decade to further Russian interests.

This week, The Associated Press reported that Manafort had worked for a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, to craft a plan that would ultimately “greatly benefit the Putin government.” The work was under a contract signed in 2006, worth $10 million per year, and allegedly lasted until at least 2009

It’s not clear how much money Manafort received from the relationship, though the AP cited records detailing wire transfers of millions of dollars. 

Manafort says the work was solely focused on commercial and business efforts and never crossed over into politics.

“I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments. My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russian political interests,” Manafort said in a statement on Wednesday.

His lobbying work was legal

There is no public evidence that Manafort did anything illegal for his clients, or that working for them violated any laws.

Yet there are unanswered questions about an influence campaign that one of Manafort’s firms covertly led to benefit Yanukovych and his political allies. That campaign was conducted through two lobbying firms in Washington, and included work to set up meetings between influential congressional leaders and a top Ukrainian official and work to obtain positive U.S. media coverage for leaders within the Party of Regions.

As part of the contract, $2.2 was paid to the lobbying firms between 2012 and 2014, with the money routed through a lobbying contract with a Dutch-based non-profit called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.

The Centre was originally formed with a board of directors that included government officials from Yanukovych’s party.  

Both Podesta Group and Mercury worked for the Centre and disclosed their work with the House and Senate under lobbying disclosure rules. The client signed documents for the firms attesting that it had no connections to a foreign government.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires the influence activities of foreign government entities, officials and those tied to them to be disclosed to the Justice Department. 

While the two firms may be protected from FARA violations, the totality of Manafort’s work overseas raises questions about whether he should have registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. 

Violating FARA is a felony and can carry fines up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison. However, prosecutions are rare, and there have been fewer than 10 cases ever brought by the Justice Department. Each case typically had larger charges attached. 

However, political law experts say that the extent of Manafort’s work, which could have potentially involved working to influence U.S. policy in regard to Ukraine or Russia, could cause DOJ to think hard about bringing a case. 

“Given the larger investigation into Russian meddling, this may actually be one of those rare instances where DOJ might want to consider a prosecution under FARA if they have the evidence,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a partner at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock focused on lobbying compliance.  

It’s unclear how Manafort was paid

Manafort is the subject of an anti-corruption investigation by federal authorities, and the Treasury Department is probing his use of offshore accounts, The Associated Press reported this week.

His name appeared on a so-called “black ledger” found by Ukrainian anti-corruption officials last year. The ledger, an accounting document thought to detail a Party of Regions slush fund, apparently listed $12.7 million in under-the-table payments to Manafort from 2007 to 2012, according to The New York Times.

Earlier this week, a member of Ukraine’s parliament released documents that purportedly show Manafort attempted to hide at least $750,000 in payments tied to his work for Yanukovych. 

The money was funneled to Manafort through a Belize-based shell corporation, with an invoice saying it was for the payment of 501 computers. The date of the payment corresponds to an entry next to his name in the black ledger, the New York Times reported.

Manafort says the documents are forgeries as part of an attempt to blackmail him. A spokesman for Manafort has called the allegations "baseless." 

Rhetoric towards Russia and platform changes stirred suspicion

The rhetoric from the Trump campaign regarding Russia was relatively soft, compared to others in the Republican Party.  

During the run-up to the GOP convention in Cleveland last summer, the campaign successfully pushed for changes to the Republican Party platform that weakened language about helping Ukraine defend itself from encroachment by Russia.

Some questioned whether Manafort had pushed for the change, which he has denied.