The indictment against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates charged them with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, implicating two unnamed companies in the pair's alleged scheme to orchestrate a concealed lobbying campaign on behalf of pro-Russia forces in Ukraine.
Hours after Manafort and Gates surrendered to federal authorities, NBC News reported that three sources confirmed the companies — named only in the indictment as Company A and Company B -- are Mercury Public Affairs and the Podesta Group, respectively.
This is significant because it adds more evidence to the case that both firms knowingly violated FARA in their efforts to influence U.S. policy in favor of the pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine. FARA, enacted to keep the public informed of foreign efforts to influence public opinion and policy, "requires entities register within ten days of agreeing to become an agent and before performing any activities for the foreign principal." Both Mercury and the Podesta Group only registered their work in accordance with FARA following media exposure, years after entering into an agreement with the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based think tank that appears to have been a front group for the Ukrainian government.
The indictment published Monday cites evidence that would show information made its way to both companies as early as 2012 alerting them their work was being directed by the Ukrainian government.
Paragraph 20 of the indictment claims Gates communicated to Company A, identified by NBC as Mercury, in February of 2012 that it would be "representing the Government of Ukraine in [Washington,] DC." Mercury's retroactive FARA disclosure, filed in April of 2017, says that prior to their engagement, the ECMU "provided written certification to the Registrant that 'none of the activities are directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a government of a foreign country or a foreign political party.'"
That may well be true, but if the special counsel has evidence Gates, who allegedly oversaw their lobbying efforts, explicitly told Mercury the firm was representing the Ukrainian government, the ECMU's assurances look more like a careful cover up attempt, especially given that Manafort and Gates are charged with using the Centre to "minimize public disclosure." If Mercury was told they would be representing the Ukrainian government and failed to file a FARA disclosure, they broke the law.
Another section of the indictment says Gates wrote to both Company A and Company B in November of 2012 asking them to prepare assessments of their "past and prospective lobbying efforts so the 'President' could be briefed by 'Paul'" on how Ukraine could improve in 2013. Taken by itself, that information alone would mean both Mercury and the Podesta Group should have been aware their work was ultimately being directed by the Ukrainian government. Podesta Group head Tony Podesta told the Associated Press in Aug. 2016 that Manafort was not involved in the work it completed.
Amid media reports on then-Trump campaign chairman Manafort's ties to Ukraine, the indictment claims Gates sent "false talking points" to the Podesta Group, to which an unnamed principal responded, "there's a lot of email traffic that has you much more involved than this suggests[.] We will not disclose that but heaven knows what former employees of [Company B] or [Company A] might say."
That looks pretty bad for the Podesta Group.
Paragraph 23 of the indictment further claims both companies signed contracts with the ECMU despite never meeting them, and were paid for their work through offshore accounts associated with "Manafort-Gates entities," rather than the Centre itself.
Over the past 14 months, sources have come forward in media reports with accounts that imply the Podesta Group knew their work was on behalf of the Ukrainian government, including seven people who were lobbied by the firm and told CNN the company "left a clear impression that they were representing Ukraine's government."
Hours after the indictment was revealed on Monday, Tony Podesta announced he was stepping down from his eponymous firm. Just last week, NBC News reported that Mueller had opened a federal criminal investigation into both Podesta and his company. That timing won't do much to quell suspicions swirling around the Podesta Group.