The hole around former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort just keeps getting bigger and bigger. This week, The New York Times reported that New York prosecutors have been focusing their scrutiny on a few firms that worked with Manafort in his secretive efforts to prop up the since pushed out Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who is a close ally of the Kremlin.
According to The Times, prosecutors have held a number of new interviews in recent weeks with people involved in the scheme on the basis of fresh information about its operations. Scrutinized firms include Mercury Public Affairs; the Podesta Group; and the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom, which acted as a sort of ringleader.
Manafort contracted Skadden Arps to prepare a report on the imprisonment of one of Yanukovych’s political rivals that was meant to tamper down international human rights concerns. Those involved including Manafort, the firm, and even the Ukrainian government concealed the true nature of the money driving the project. Yanukovych’s government initially claimed that it funded the report with about $12,000 in public funds delivered through the Ukrainian Justice Department — but in reality, Skadden Arps was paid some $4 million for the work, which Manafort funneled from a Ukrainian oligarch through a Cypriot bank account to the company.
Skadden Arps has claimed they “understood” the original source for the money to be Victor Pinchuk, who’s popped up in scrutiny associated with the Russia investigation before — and has denied that he’s responsible for the money. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has previously looked into a $150,000 donation he gave to President Donald Trump’s charitable foundation — which has since closed up shop in the face of allegations of wrongdoing from New York authorities, who are seeking millions in damages.
Skadden Arps had former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig handling their work with (supposedly) Pinchuk’s money, and he took dramatic steps to try and conceal its true nature. He worked with Manafort to backdate documents to retroactively bill the Ukrainian government itself for $1.1 million and thereby possibly divert attention from its other millions, and the firm initially refused to give any clues about the true source of their original money when pressed by the Justice Department.
It’s since registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as part of a settlement that included it handing over the $4.6 million it still had from its work for Yanukovych.
The Mercury and Podesta lobbying firms had been paid to help promote the report that Skadden Arps produced, and they too sought to avoid scrutiny over the true source of their money, which came from Ukraine’s ruling party back around 2012 despite being claimed to be simply from a European nonprofit organization.
Investigators have been looking into why these firms sought to hide the true sources of their cash, with possibilities including that Mercury’s Vin Weber was concerned about the effect it could have on his image and that of another organization he was working for at the time — Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
Mercury and Podesta have both blamed their own failures to register under FARA on Skadden Arps and Manafort (and Trump) associate Rick Gates, who’s one of five former associates of the president to plead guilty to federal criminal charges associated with the Russia investigation.
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