Federal Prosecutors Ramp Up Probe of Manafort-Linked Podesta Group, and More

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 15: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives at the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse for a hearing on June 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. Today a federal judge revoked Manafort's bail due to alleged witness tampering. Manafort was indicted last year by a federal grand jury and has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him including, conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, and being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Federal prosecutors in New York City are focusing their attention on high-profile Democratic and Republican-linked lobbying firms with ties to President Donald Trump‘s former campaign chair Paul Manafort. The two elite firms targeted by the reinvigorated investigation are the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs. Both lobbying outfits are based out of Washington, D.C.

According to anonymous sources cited by the Associated Press, investigators with the Southern District of New York (SDNY) have started to interview relevant witnesses and lawyers in order to schedule additional sit-downs and questioning sessions related to the high-powered firms’ foreign lobbying work.

The renewed interest and effort in the New York-based investigation underscores special counsel Robert Mueller‘s commitment to interpreting his mandate broadly. The wide-ranging Russia probe has already implicated several instances of corruption among the American oligarchy with seemingly minimal-to-no connections to Russian electoral interference during the 2016 general election.

Manafort’s 2018 trial on charges of bank fraud and tax evasion was only tangentially related to Russia or Trump but Mueller apparently held firm with his focus, charges and ire on Manafort due to the defendant’s substantial connections to the 45th president and his 2106 presidential campaign. The SDNY investigation, however, is a referral that Mueller himself believed too far-afield from anything Russia-related.

The SDNY’s effort is also notable for its bi-partisan characteristics.

At the head of the Podesta Group–and an apparent target in the probe–is Tony Podesta, a longtime Democratic Party power-broker whose brother, John Podesta, chaired Hillary Clinton‘s ill-fated 2016 presidential campaign. Mercury Public Affairs guru is Vin Weber, a Republican former congressman from Minnesota.

The two Washington insiders are being given a hard look by prosecutors for their failure to register as foreign agents for the Ukraine over extensive lobbying work done at Manafort’s direction and behest. Neither man has been charged as of yet and both of their firms insist they did nothing wrong because they acted on the advice of third-party attorneys.

In September of this year, Manafort admitted that he directed both Podesta and Mercury to lobby on behalf of a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party controlled by Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine and Manafort’s longtime client and inroad to Ukrainian politics and money.

The AP report notes:

While carrying out the lobbying, neither the Podesta Group nor the Mercury Group registered as foreign agents under a U.S. law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires lobbyists to declare publicly if they represent foreign leaders, governments or their political parties.

The Justice Department has rarely prosecuted such cases, which carry up to five years in prison, but has taken a more aggressive tack lately.

Another high-profile Democratic Party apparatchik could also be implicated in the SDNY probe.

Investigators are reportedly considering charges against former Barack Obama White House counsel Greg Craig for his efforts to supervise the construction of a report authored by the Ukrainian government. Mueller’s army of attorneys have alleged that Manafort helped the Ukraine conceal the fact that they paid in excess of $4 million for said report.

As of now, it’s unknown whether this investigatory build up is a sign of charges to be filed or whether New York authorities are simply slowly following up on Mueller’s earlier referral.

[Image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

Follow Colin Kalmbacher on Twitter: @colinkalmbacher

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