Judge warns Manafort on Ukrainian op-ed

The judge handling two men who've pleaded not guilty in the Russia probe expressed frustration with their efforts to ...

Posted: Dec. 11, 2017 6:17 PM
Updated: Dec. 11, 2017 6:17 PM

The judge handling two men who've pleaded not guilty in the Russia probe expressed frustration with their efforts to change their bail and continue working as political consultants in an hour-long hearing Monday.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the US District Court in D.C. took no formal action in response to former Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort's work on the op-ed defending him in the Kyiv Post, which became an issue for him last week. But she did warn him, saying that a court-issued gag order not to influence public opinion in the case applies to him "and not just your lawyer."

In the future, Berman Jackson would view content like the op-ed as an effort to "circumvent and evade" her orders, she said.

Even if Manafort was working on writing for a small Ukrainian audience, as soon as an article that defends him gets posted on Facebook, Twitter or a blog, it could impact public perception in the US of the case, she added.

Manafort's attorney Kevin Downing defended Manafort's work on the op-ed, which described his foreign policy work in Ukraine as beneficial to the country and its relations with Western Europe.

"There is a torrent of negative press about Mr. Manafort." It's difficult, Downing said, "to sit and watch his reputation continue to be besmirched." Downing specifically mentioned The Washington Post as reaching a large audience with coverage of Manafort.

The prosecutors from Robert Mueller's special counsel office also faced negative press recently, Berman Jackson said in response to Downing. Her remark could have alluded to political attacks on prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, who was in the courtroom Monday. Weissman has faced conservatives' criticism for emailing notes of support to former acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she opposed Trump policy.

No new bail

Even with the op-ed hanging over a bail deal both sides appeared to have reached several days ago, Berman Jackson made no decision on changing either Manafort or Gates' house arrest, GPS monitoring and bail conditions.

The two Trump advisers' house arrest terms were originally intended to be temporary. Yet six weeks after their arrests on multiple white-collar criminal charges, Manafort and Gates still haven't agreed with Mueller's office on less restrictive bail backed by property and assets until their trial. Some of the hitch has related to disagreements over the value of what both men own in real estate.

Berman Jackson on Monday sought more information. So far, Manafort's lawyers have asked to insure his more than $10 million bond with four houses -- including one that may be forfeited to the government if he is found guilty -- and his family's financial accounts. But his attorneys have used printouts from real estate websites like Zillow to show the court home values. That's not enough proof of value, Berman Jackson said.

Both stand to lose a portion of their assets if they are found guilty of money laundering.

Manafort came close to reaching an agreement in recent weeks. His lawyers said Mueller's office agreed on a more than $11 million pledge to back his bail, then the prosecutors pointed out he violated their trust in ghostwriting the op-ed about himself. "There's the sense the defendant takes unilateral action," Weissmann, of the special counsel's office, said Monday.

Manafort wants to travel in Florida, where he primarily lives; Virginia, where he has a condo; and New York, where he does business and has homes.

Berman Jackson disagreed with the idea of him traveling between states, and asked him which residence he'd prefer to stay in if he had to choose. Manafort said Florida.

Manafort wants to go to New York too, so he could continue to earn a living, his lawyer, Downing, said. Downing then gave a hint of his case strategy: "When we look at this case, we look at it as a failure to file some forms." Failure to file foreign lobbying disclosures and foreign bank records is among Manafort's charges.

"At the end of the day, we just don't think (the rest of the case) will stand against Mr. Manafort."

Coach Rick Gates

Gates too has special circumstances Berman Jackson tried to rein in. For weeks, he's asked for exemptions on a case-by-case basis, to attend school and sports events for his four children, to vote in a state election, to attend family Thanksgiving. Berman Jackson let him go to some of those activities. But she noted in court today that he recently signed up as a coach for a children's sports team.

He will still have to prove his assets before his house arrest and bond terms can be changed, and the judge will have to keep considering "soccer practice" on a case-by-case basis.

Berman Jackson also encouraged both Manafort and Gates to give the people monitoring their house arrest more time before they leave for approved activities.

She mentioned a religious service one of the men attended on a day other than Sunday, where the pre-trial officers learned of the plan to leave the house less than an hour before. Berman Jackson didn't specify if it was Gates or Manafort, but encouraged them not to plan to leave or make unannounced stops on the way home from engagements with less than an hour's notice. The defendants can leave their homes for medical and religious reasons and to appear in court or meet with their lawyers.

So far, Manafort and Gates' legal team have received more than 400,000 documents from Mueller's office related to the case. That includes 2,000 "hot" or especially relevant items, and more than a dozen search warrants. They still plan to turn over some electronic devices they collected, prosecutors told the court Monday. In criminal trials, prosecutors must turn over to defendants before a trial various documents they collect to build their case, including any potentially exculpatory evidence they find.

Both sides are going to continue reviewing the documents, electronic devices and other things they've collected for the case. The next hearing will be January 16 at 9:30 a.m.

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