In 2012, Paul Manafort had a problem. He was seeking a way to bolster the interests of his pro-Russian Ukrainian clients in Washington, but he did not want to set off federal lobbying rules that would force the disclosure of detailed information about the funding for, and targets of, that work to the Justice Department.
His solution, federal prosecutors say, was to help those clients create a nonprofit group in Brussels. He then recruited a pair of top lobbying firms to represent the group, an arrangement he hoped would allow the evasion of the disclosure rules.
But even some people at the lobbying firms he recruited saw the nonprofit group, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, as a sham, according to new evidence laid out by prosecutors when they unveiled a plea agreement with Manafort in federal court in Washington on Friday.
An employee at one of the firms, the Podesta Group, referred to the European Center for a Modern Ukraine in an email as the “European hot-dog stand for a Modern Ukraine.” The employee dismissed it as “a fig leaf on a fig leaf,” its written attestation that it was not controlled or funded by Ukraine’s pro-Russian president at the time, Viktor F Yanukovych, or his party, which Manafort represented.
A co-founder of the Podesta Group, Tony Podesta, told his team to operate on the understanding that Yanukovych “is the client,” while an employee at the other firm, Mercury Public Affairs, called the claim that the nonprofit was independent from Yanukovych “nonsense,” comparing it to “Alice in Wonderland.”
Nonetheless, neither the Podesta Group nor Mercury registered its engagement with the European Center, which paid them more than $1 million each, under the foreign lobbying disclosure laws until last year. The registrations came about three years after the work ended in 2014, and only after the work came under scrutiny from the Justice Department.
Now, that work, and the decision not to disclose it under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, has turned Podesta and Mercury into subjects of interest in a series of linked investigations that have roiled Washington’s lobbying industry by exposing the sometimes surreptitious ways in which foreign interests try to buy influence.
© 2018 The New York Times News Service