Political News

With Mueller Closing In, Manafort Allies Jump Ship

Posted June 7, 2018 11:00 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The special counsel’s accusation this week that Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, tried to tamper with potential witnesses originated with two veteran journalists who turned on Manafort after working closely with him to prop up the former Russia-aligned president of Ukraine, interviews and documents show.

The two journalists, who helped lead a project to which prosecutors say Manafort funneled more than $2 million from overseas accounts, are the latest in a series of onetime Manafort business partners who have provided damaging evidence to Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Their cooperation with the government has increasingly isolated Manafort as he awaits trial on charges of violating financial, tax and federal lobbying disclosure laws.

Manafort’s associates say he feels betrayed by the former business partners, to whom he collectively steered millions of dollars over the years for consulting, lobbying and legal work intended to bolster the reputation of Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine. Manafort has told associates that he believes Mueller’s team is using the business partners to pressure him to flip on Trump in a manner similar to the one used to prosecute the energy giant Enron in the early 2000s by a Justice Department task force that included some lawyers serving on Mueller’s team. “Anybody who is a student of the Enron prosecution sees a very close parallel,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign operative, who has known Manafort for three decades and spoke with him Wednesday. Another associate said Manafort and some of his close allies were reading a book by conservative lawyer and commentator Sidney Powell that claims misconduct in the Enron prosecution. And Caputo, who was interviewed by Mueller’s team last month, said that “when Paul decided to fight, he knew the lay of the land.”

Prosecutors assert that Manafort’s fight included trying to shape the accounts that former business partners offered prosecutors. In court filings this week, they said that starting in late February, Manafort repeatedly tried to reach the two journalists — with whom he had fallen out of contact until recently — to coordinate their accounts about their work to tamp down international criticism of Yanukovych for corruption, persecuting rivals and pivoting toward Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. The prosecutors did not name the journalists, but three people familiar with the project identified them as Alan Friedman and Eckart Sager.

Both men fended off the overtures, which included phone calls and encrypted text messages from Manafort and a longtime associate, whom prosecutors have not named but was identified by people close to Manafort as Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian army linguist who prosecutors claim has ties to Russian intelligence.

Instead of engaging, Friedman and Sager informed Mueller’s team of the efforts to reach them, according to prosecutors. Friedman accused Manafort of trying to “suborn perjury” by persuading him to lie to investigators, according to a declaration by an FBI agent on the case. Neither Friedman nor Sager could be reached for comment.

The prosecutors are arguing that because of these allegations, a federal judge should revise the terms of Manafort’s bail or even send him to jail while he awaits trial. Manafort, who posted a $10 million bond and has been confined to his home since October, has until Friday at midnight to respond to the prosecutors’ accusations. His spokesman brushed aside prosecutors’ allegations of witness tampering but declined to comment on Manafort’s relationship with Friedman and Sager.

They join a growing list of lobbyists, consultants and lawyers who worked on various contracts related to Yanukovych’s government, political party or supporters and are cooperating with the government’s prosecution of Manafort. His associates say he was most stung by the decision of his longtime business partner, Rick Gates, who served as Trump’s former deputy presidential campaign manager, to cooperate as part of a deal in which he pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators.

Alex van der Zwaan, who worked with Gates and Kilimnik on a report used to defend Yanukovych against accusations of prosecuting a rival for political purposes, cooperated with Mueller’s team before he pleaded guilty in February to lying to investigators. A former lawyer with the international firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, he was sentenced to 30 days and a hefty fine.

Other former associates who have cooperated with Mueller’s team include employees from the lobbying firms Mercury Public Affairs and the Podesta Group, both of which worked for a nonprofit based in Brussels called the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, which was overseen by Manafort.

The effort complemented the one with which Friedman and Sager were involved from 2011 until 2014 to enlist prominent European politicians to vouch for Yanukovych. From overseas bank accounts, Manafort funneled $2.4 million to fund the activities of the coalition overseen by Friedman and Sager, which helped place op-eds in the Western news media and arrange speaking engagements.

Sager, for example, worked with Manafort and others to arrange a March 2013 visit to Washington by Romano Prodi, the former prime minister of Italy and the former president of the European Commission. Prodi met with key members of Congress, including Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Friedman helped prepare an op-ed by Prodi that was published by The New York Times in February 2014, according to prosecutors. The piece argued that Yanukovych could bring Ukraine back from the brink of collapse and that European leaders should not threaten sanctions against him or the nation.

The day after the commentary was published, Yanukovych fled Ukraine amid protests of his government’s corruption and pivot toward Moscow, eventually arriving in Russia and effectively ending his presidency.

In an interview Thursday, Prodi said that he wrote the op-ed, although he acknowledged that he and Friedman, whom he said he knew only as an author and columnist and not as a lobbyist, had “exchanged views” and maybe “some language.” He added, “When I write an article and sign this document, it’s my responsibility.” He said that he had no knowledge of Manafort’s involvement, but, after checking his records, he confirmed that Sager “arranged my appointments in Washington.”

While prosecutors are now relying on Friedman’s and Sager’s accounts to accuse Manafort of trying to undermine the case that he evaded lobbying laws, Friedman and Sager have been accused of misrepresenting themselves as independent journalists while being paid by foreign governments or their intermediaries. Friedman’s firm, Fact-Based Communications, went bankrupt several years ago after disclosures that the Malaysian government was paying the company at the same it was producing supposedly independent documentaries and reports about Malaysia.

Friedman, who worked at various points for the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and the International Herald Tribune, has continued to work as a journalist in Italy, where he wrote an authorized biography of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In mid-2016, when Manafort was serving as Trump’s campaign chairman, Friedman had a one-on-one interview with Trump. Since then, he has criticized the president. One former official at Fact-Based Communications said it would not be hard to imagine Friedman’s turning on a business partner if it served his ends.

“Loyalty did not always feature strongly among his values,” Neil Boyde, a former chief financial officer at the company, said in an interview.

Sager, a former producer for CNN, was accused last year of publishing articles that defended corrupt Azerbaijani interests in exchange for $2.6 million from Azerbaijani sources. The allegations were made in a report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an international network of investigative journalists.