Paul Manafort never believed the rules applied to him; I know — I worked with him for a decade

Back in 2005, when I decided to write my memoir and catalog my adventures as an international operative for a leading Washington lobbying firm, I didn’t have a clue as to where the story would end up, but I was certain where it would open: in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1989 when my first boss, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDem warns Trump: 'Obstruction of justice' to fire Rosenstein Ex-White House official revises statement to Mueller after Flynn guilty plea: report Former White House lawyer sought to pay Manafort, Gates legal fees: report MORE, shipped me out to secure a million-dollar contract with a murderous dictator named Siad Barre.

It was a pointless and soulless mission in which everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Soon after I arrived, armed rebels closed in on the capital. Driving rains washed out the dirt roads and set off a biblical plague of flying monster bugs. The Somali Air jet scheduled to return me safely to Nairobi was commandeered to Libya to collect weapons by the man who was supposed to sign the lucrative contract I was carrying.

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I was stuck in an airport besieged with desperate Somalis trying to flee the advancing rebels. I had to negotiate my way out of the country and return to Washington via Cairo — without a contract. I swore to myself at the time: “I will never forgive Manafort for sending me into this madness!”

 

A good plot, most writers will tell you, is built on conflict. Working for Washington’s first bipartisan lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, reporting to Paul Manafort, was my conflict; what came thereafter, my self-reckoning.

I was a recent college grad, broke, with no political connections when I managed to talk my way into an interview with Manafort and told him, boldly — and naively — “There is no place I will not go.” And from 1985 to 1995 (the beginning and end of BMS&K), there was no place that Manafort wouldn’t send me: war zones, states under armed occupation, the African bush or the cocaine-trafficked jungles of Latin America.

I had a front-row seat to a world changing in fast-forward with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was thrilling, scary and, at times, overwhelming. But I never said no to a mission, or turned back. And despite all that unfolded, I will always remain grateful to Manafort for giving me a chance to learn first-hand how world events are often shaped.

BMS&K was where my mettle was tested, my foundational skills acquired, and where I struggled with my conscience, asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

At first, the moral clarity of the situation was clear. America was at the onset of Ronald Reagan’s second term, fighting the communists, confronting the Soviets, supporting the Freedom Fighters doctrine, making the world safe for democracy. Good versus evil was as distinguishable as black and white.

But then the world went gray. BMS&K clients, American allies supporting the U.S. against the Soviets, were branded, some with good reason, despots or worse. The freedom fighters upholding the Reagan doctrine were suddenly terrorists. 

Manafort, for the most part, remained safely ensconced in European five-star hotels or in his plush office overlooking the Potomac. I was on the front lines, absorbing the shocks, forming friendships with many who wouldn’t live to fight another day, and questioning, finally, my own complicity in events.

But that was hardly a concern for Manafort. As he said to me before I took off for Somalia in 1989, “We all know Barre is a bad guy, Riva. We just have to make sure he is our bad guy.”

I saw in Manafort no evident distress about the collateral damage that unfolded, the lives that were damaged or lost. He could self-justify anything. And as time went on, it seemed to me that he became all about the money. I and my colleagues were left to defend the extravagant expenses he charged to our clients.

I watched Manafort bend the rules, and so did everyone else, until eventually the firm’s new management asked him to leave. I left him, too.

I haven’t seen nor spoken directly with Paul since 1995, though I did receive an angry email when The Guardian wrote a story upon the release of my book in June 2016, quoting a passage where I call him “mercenary.”

Today Manafort sits in an Alexandria, Va., jail cell, and a jury deliberates his fate on 18 counts of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the government. What effect, if any, the verdict will have on Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion during the 2016 presidential election remains unclear.

Within the context of my memoir, and having worked for Manafort for the first 10 years of my professional career, there are a few things I can observe with some degree of clarity.

The indictments against Paul Manafort, (the federal case charging failure to register as a foreign agent and money laundering, and the state case alleging tax and bank fraud), were predictable in the trajectory of his professional behavior. We joked at BMS&K that Manafort “was the master of his own universe,” meaning he did what he wanted, when he wanted. I don't think he ever believed the rules applied to him.

That said, Manafort’s downfall came when he decided to return to American presidential politics in early 2016, joined the Trump campaign, and put himself under intense media scrutiny. Why he ran such an obvious risk, after a decade of controversial work in Ukraine on behalf of Victor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, remains a mystery to me.

And finally Manfort, by all accounts, including mine, is a brilliant political strategist with an astute legal mind, intimately familiar with U.S. laws and regulations. The idea that anyone other than he himself controlled his affairs, or that he was unaware of the rules that bound him and his businesses, just isn’t credible.

For all of my former BMS&K colleagues who feel tainted by the charges against our former boss: Remember that we were more than Paul Manafort. We worked on projects of real consequence. We learned so much and formed lasting friendships with each other and around the globe. We are not defined by our setbacks, but how we overcome them, and the lessons we take away.

Fate and destiny eventually took me to the West African nation of Liberia in support of the rise of Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and along the way I reminded myself to ask first, before the consequences began to unfold, “What am I doing here?”

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016).