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Manafort pleads guilty, will cooperate with special counsel

Written by Eric Tucker, Chad Day and Michael Balsamo/The Associated Press | Sep 14, 2018 1:35 PM
Paul Manafort.jpg

In this May 23, 2018, photo, Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, leaves the Federal District Court after a hearing in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

(Washington) -- Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort agreed Friday to cooperate with the special counsel's Russia investigation as he pleaded guilty to federal charges and avoided a second trial that could have exposed him to even greater punishment.

The deal gives special counsel Robert Mueller a key cooperator who led the Trump election effort for a crucial stretch during the 2016 presidential campaign, though the White House quickly said the outcome had nothing to do with that. The result also ensures that the investigation will extend far beyond the November congressional elections despite entreaties from the president's lawyer that Mueller bring his probe to a close.

Manafort's plea, to charges tied to his Ukrainian political consulting work and unrelated to his time with the campaign, came just three days before he was to have stood trial for a second time.

Manafort, 69, entered the courtroom with a broad smile, wearing a dark suit and red tie, and mouthed a kiss to his wife. When it came time to face the judge, he responded to her questions in a low voice with brief answers.

He was convicted last month of eight financial crimes in a separate trial in Virginia and faces seven to 10 years in prison in that case. The two conspiracy counts he pleaded guilty to on Friday carry up to five years in prison, though Manafort's sentence will ultimately depend on his cooperation.

On Friday, prosecutor Andrew Weissman said in court that Manafort had struck a "cooperation agreement" and would plead guilty to charges related to his Ukrainian political consulting work.

"He wanted to make sure that his family was able to remain safe and live a good life. He's accepted responsibility. This is for conduct that dates back many years and everybody should remember that," said attorney Kevin Downing.

It is unclear what information Manafort is prepared to provide to investigators about Trump or that could aid Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

But he could be a key witness for the government. He participated in a 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians where he expected to receive derogatory information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. A grand jury used by Mueller has heard testimony about the meeting.

He was also a close business associate of a man who U.S. intelligence believes has ties to Russian intelligence.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the Manafort case was unrelated to President Donald Trump.

"This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated."

Rudy Giuliani, Trump's attorney, echoed that.

"Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign," Giuliani said.

Under the terms of Friday's plea deal, prosecutors dropped the bulk of the charges against Manafort, filing new paperwork that includes just two counts that resemble in many ways the original allegations made in an indictment last year.

The charges include conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

It's unclear how the possible deal might affect Manafort's pursuit of a pardon from Trump. The president has signaled that he's sympathetic to Manafort's cause. In comments to Politico before Friday's plea deal, Giuliani said a plea without a cooperation agreement wouldn't foreclose the possibility of a pardon.

Manafort had aggressively fought the charges against him and taken shots at his co-defendant, Rick Gates, who cut a deal with prosecutors earlier this year that included a cooperation agreement.

At the time of Gates' plea, Manafort issued a statement saying he "had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence." And during his Virginia trial in August, Manafort's lawyers spent considerable time painting Gates as a liar, embezzler, philanderer and turncoat who would say anything to get a lighter prison sentence.

Pleading guilty allows Manafort to avoid a trial that was expected to last at least three weeks and posed the potential of adding years to the time he is already facing under federal sentencing guidelines from his conviction in Virginia.

A jury in that earlier trial found Manafort guilty of eight counts of tax evasion, failing to report foreign bank accounts and bank fraud. Jurors deadlocked on 10 other counts.

In the current Washington case, prosecutors were expected to lay out in detail Manafort's political consulting and lobbying work on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the pro-Russian Party of Regions.

Prosecutors say that Manafort directed a large scale lobbying operation in the U.S. for Ukrainian interests without registering with the Justice Department as required by the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Manafort was accused of concealing from the IRS tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from his Ukrainian patrons and conspiring to launder that money through offshore accounts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Manafort had denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty. Even after his indictment last October, though, prosecutors say he continued to commit crimes by tampering with witnesses. The discovery of his witness contacts led to a superseding indictment in June and Manafort's jailing ahead of his trial.

In addition to the witness tampering counts, Manafort had been formally charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, conspiring to launder money and lying to the FBI and Justice Department about the nature of his work. Court papers indicated that he could have faced between 15 and 19 1/2 years in prison under federal guidelines.

*An earlier version of this story appears below*

(Washington) -- Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was expected to plead guilty Friday to reduced federal charges in a deal with prosecutors that will allow him to avoid a second trial scheduled to begin next week, a new court filing shows.

The charges are related to Manafort's Ukrainian political consulting work.

Friday's court filing said Manafort's homes in New York City, in the Hamptons and in Virginia, as well as money from his bank accounts and life insurance policies may be seized by the government as part of the deal.

It is not clear whether any agreement with prosecutors would require him to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation into possible coordination between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.

In the new filing, prosecutors dropped the bulk of the charges against Manafort, filing new paperwork that includes just two counts that resemble in many ways the original allegations made in an indictment last year.

The charges were contained in a criminal information document that can only be filed with a defendant's consent and typically signals a deal has been reached. The charges include conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The allegations do not involve his work with the Trump presidential campaign.

Manafort was convicted last month of eight financial crimes in a separate trial in Virginia. He was facing a second trial Monday on charges related to Ukrainian political consulting work, including failing to register as a foreign agent.

It's unclear how the possible deal might affect Manafort's pursuit of a pardon from President Donald Trump. The president has signaled that he's sympathetic to Manafort's cause, and in comments to Politico, his attorney-spokesman Rudy Giuliani said a plea without a cooperation agreement wouldn't foreclose the possibility of a pardon.

Manafort has aggressively fought the charges against him and taken shots at his co-defendant, Rick Gates, who cut a deal with prosecutors earlier this year that included a cooperation agreement.

At the time of Gates' plea, Manafort issued a statement saying he "had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence." And during his Virginia trial in August, Manafort's lawyers spent considerable time painting Gates as a liar, embezzler, philanderer and turncoat who would say anything to get a lighter prison sentence.

Pleading guilty would allow Manafort to avoid a trial that was expected to last at least three weeks and posed the potential of adding years onto the seven to 10 years he is already facing under federal sentencing guidelines from his conviction in Virginia.

A jury found Manafort guilty of eight counts of tax evasion, failing to report foreign bank accounts and bank fraud. Jurors deadlocked on 10 other counts.

In the Washington case, prosecutors were set to lay out in great detail Manafort's political consulting and lobbying work on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the pro-Russian Party of Regions.

Prosecutors say that Manafort directed a large scale lobbying operation in the U.S. for Ukrainian interests without registering with the Justice Department as required by the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Manafort was accused of concealing from the IRS tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from his Ukrainian patrons and conspiring to launder that money through offshore accounts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Manafort had denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty. Even after his indictment last October, though, prosecutors say he continued to commit crimes by tampering with witnesses. The discovery of his witness contacts led to a superseding indictment in June and Manafort's jailing ahead of his trial.

In addition to the witness tampering counts, Manafort had been formally charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, conspiring to launder money and lying to the FBI and Justice Department about the nature of his work. Court papers indicated that he could have faced between 15 and 19 1/2 years in prison under federal guidelines.

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