What crime did Manafort allegedly commit?

What crime did Manafort allegedly commit?
© Anna Moneymaker

As jurors deliberate the fate of former Trump campaign manager Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortCohen questioned for hours in Mueller probe about Trump's dealings with Russia: report Vote Democrat in midterms to rein in Trump, preserve justice Hillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe MORE, it’s a bit of a letdown for Trump critics that Manafort wasn’t charged with anything having to do with alleged Russia collusion in the 2016 presidential campaign. So what’s his prosecution all about?

To understand, it helps to know a bit more about the murky universe in which Manafort and his closest colleagues operated.

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It’s illegal for foreigners to directly give money to U.S. politicians and political parties. But there’s a legal way around that. Believe it or not, foreigners — even Russian President Vladimir Putin or North Korean President Kim Jong Un — are permitted to pay big money to hire well-connected U.S. public relations firms, law firms and lobbyists to act as their “foreign agents.” From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, more than 15,000 foreign entities have hired thousands of Americans to do just that.

 

What do these foreigners get for the money? The kind of access of which most Americans can only dream: Meetings are arranged with powerful, influential people in politics and media, at think tanks and universities. U.S. tax money gets directed their way. Laws are written in their favor. Arms deals are made. Trade policies are developed. Positive op-eds appear in American newspapers, and sympathetic articles are published in the press to sway public opinion. Rarely are we — as taxpayers and consumers of the information — told about the money that traded hands in the shadows. We’re left to believe it’s all just organic.

Our government says it’s all good as long as the U.S. foreign agents disclose their business ties to the Department of Justice as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The idea is that as long as the relationships are made known, it’s not subterfuge. Problem is, few Americans read the disclosures or would even know where to find them, and have no idea about the extent to which foreign governments are secretly pulling strings in America every day.

Foreign strife, like the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, provides business and fundraising opportunities. And no single political party corners the market.

I recently analyzed FARA records going back to 2012 and found millions of dollars paid by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian industrial mogul Oleg Deripaska, among others, to U.S. firms for business and policy advice. Russia’s nationalist political party, Rodina, hired an American strategic communications firm to arrange news stories and op-eds in our national newspapers.

Russian banks hired U.S. firms to fend off sanctions after its conflict with Ukraine in 2014. One Russian bank spent more than $760,000 between U.S. corporate law giant Sidley Austin and Clinton-connected lobbyists Andy and Mike Manatos. Ketchum Communications got $17.2 million over less than three years to arrange good press for Russian oil and gas company Gazprom, and $7.1 million to publicize President Putin’s speeches, arrange helpful media interviews, and operate social media accounts and the website ThinkRussia.com. Ketchum even persuaded the New York Times to publish an editorial signed by President Putin.

Russia’s adversary Ukraine has been equally if not more aggressive.

Ukraine’s national gas company, two investment firms and cryptocurrency firm Globee all hired U.S. foreign agents. So did the government of Ukraine, its ministry of finance, a political leader and its National Reforms Council — each paying up to $50,000 a month.

Billionaire Volodymyr Lytvyn, then chairman of Ukraine’s parliament, paid $90,000 a month to arrange meetings with members of Congress and news reporters. Gas and steel mogul Victor Pinchuk, who donated a fortune to the Clinton Foundation, has paid Democratic campaign consultant Doug Schoen $40,000 to $64,000 a month to try to connect to people like Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainArizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Another recession could hit US in 2019, says credit union association chief MORE (R-Ariz.), Obama and Trump officials, or reporters at Fox, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Former Clinton counsel Lanny Davis, who recently made headlines representing former Trump counsel Michael Cohen, represents Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash. Davis told me he’s defending Firtash against prosecutorial abuse by the Justice Department, which indicted Firtash in 2014 for alleged bribery; Firtash has paid Davis $735,000 over three years. Davis says he follows the letter of the law. 

Ukrainian politician Dmitry Shpenov paid Arnall Golden Gregory and the firm of former Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin (who’s been both a Democrat and a Republican) to lobby members of Congress and Obama administration officials. Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, sought U.S. help to get released from prison after her corruption conviction. Her family paid nearly $1 million to ex-congressman Jim Slattery (D-Kan.) and his law firm, who lobbied then-Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama, and got support from Sens. McCain and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGrassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (D-Ill.), who sponsored a Senate resolution pressing for Tymoshenko’s release.

So, back to Manafort and his lobbyist partner Rick Gates, both former Trump campaign officials. Their controversy dates back to 2012. And their clients? Ukraine’s pro-Russia president at the time, Viktor Yanukovich, and his political group. Manafort connected them to lobbyists Tony Podesta, a Democrat heavy-hitter, and ex-congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.). After special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE began investigating last year, the four lobbyists — Manafort, Gates, Podesta, Weber — denied wrongdoing but disclosed their work under FARA for the year’s old work. Manafort reported collecting more than $17 million in 2012 and 2013.

What happens when a foreign agent violates the required legal disclosures?

Usually, not much, according to Lydia Dennett of the watchdog Project on Government Oversight. “They don't even really get a slap on the wrist,” she told me. “They're just sort of encouraged to retroactively follow the law.” Yes, serious penalties are possible. But Dennett says the government has only pursued criminal charges eight times over the past 50 years — including Manafort.

Manafort also is accused of bank and tax fraud; he pleaded not guilty. His ex-partner Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements. Podesta hasn’t been charged but stepped down from his lobbying firm.

In the end, if Manafort’s primary alleged crime was acting as a foreign agent, his real issue was failing to register sooner. If he’d done so, he’d arguably be much like thousands of other U.S. foreign agents paid to influence our politicians and public opinion in a way that’s perfectly legal.

Whether it should be is open to debate.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”