Paul Manafort’s work for a pro-Putin Russian billionaire a decade ago could create serious legal complications for the former campaign chairman for President Donald Trump.
While Manafort stepped down from the campaign role in August after reports surfaced of his collaboration with ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a new Associated Press report alleges that he collaborated with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska for years to promote the interests of the Putin government and stifle anti-Russian opposition across numerous post-Soviet countries.
Matt Miller, a former spokesperson for the Department of Justice under Eric Holder, told Business Insider that he “was not terribly surprised” when news of Manafort’s connection to Deripaska came to light.
“If you look at the questions that exist about coordination with Russian intelligence, Paul Manafort is likely to be at the center of those questions,” he said.
The AP report alleged that Manafort maintained a business relationship with Deripaska, a Russian aluminium magnate, until 2009 and signed a $US10 million contract with his company Rusal (the largest aluminium company in the world) in 2006. A Rusal spokesperson confirmed that Manafort provided the company with extensive consultation services the following day.
During his work with Deripaska, Manafort allegedly lobbied on behalf of Russian clients with Putin ties to the Justice Department, according to the AP. He also allegedly never revealed that he did so to the government, which could put him in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Originally passed in 1938 to curb Nazi propaganda in the US, FARA requires individuals representing foreign governments or foreign political parties to register with the federal government. Depending on whether a court views his work for Deripaska as political, Manafort could be in violation of FARA.
Miller, the former DOJ spokesman, said that the reports have made it “pretty clear” that Manafort spent years lobbying “to try and benefit Putin’s interests.”
A 2005 memo from Manafort obtained by the AP directly mentions the Putin government.
“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” the memo reads.
But, according to Lydia Dennett, a FARA expert and investigator for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, a FARA investigation would need a significant amount of evidence to prove that private citizens are directly connected to a foreign government.
“Determining if the government or a political party is a principal primary beneficiary can be difficult,” she told Business Insider.
If his lobbying work with Deripaska wasn’t classified as political but business-related, Manafort would still be subject to the much less stringent Lobbying Disclosure Act, Joseph Sandler, a lawyer specializing in FARA and former general counsel for the Democratic National Committee, told Business Insider.
“It’s not enough to be pro-Putin but it also doesn’t relieve you of the obligation [to register] just because someone else is paying the bill,” said Sandler, who added that lobbyists for foreign companies are still required to register under LDA.
Sandler and Dennett suggested that the AP’s report and the subsequent Rusal Memo could add fodder to the ongoing FBI and DOJ anticorruption investigation about Manafort’s work in Eastern Europe that began last year.
Over the last three decades, Manafort advised Republicans presidents like Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In between, he founded a political lobbying firm that consulted Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, according to Politico.
The allegations against Manafort have come as numerous Trump associates are under investigation for ties to the Russian government. Last month, Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned after news about his correspondence with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak came to light.
“In this type of investigation, you look for big names to start dropping,” said Miller. “[Manafort] may be the first one.”
Manafort told the AP that allegations of his political collaboration with Deripaska were “inappropriate or nefarious” and a “smear campaign.”
“I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments,” he said to the AP. “My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russian political interests.”
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