The Podesta Group, the lobbying firm cofounded by Democratic bundler Tony Podesta and his brother John Podesta (a confidant of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), is implicated in the indictment brought against Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, according to media reports.
Among the twelve charges brought against Manafort and Gates were violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The indictment alleges both Manafort and Gates orchestrated a lobbying campaign directed by pro-Russian forces in the Ukrainian government, knowingly concealed the work by failing to file proper FARA disclosures, and then sought to cover up their efforts in subsequent filings. The lobbying campaign Manafort and Gates directed allegedly involved two companies, identified in the indictment as Company A and Company B, who the men arranged to be hired by the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, which the indictment says was known to both as a front group for that country's government and used to "minimize public disclosure."
According to the indictment, evidence shows Manafort was in regular contact with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in relation to the lobbying campaign, and Gates passed directions along to the two companies in question. The charges outlined against Manafort and Gates in the indictment are, of course, bad for them, but they're also potentially bad for the Podesta Group lobbying firm and consulting firm Mercury LLC
Why? Because the indictment contains information that implies that two companies — named only as Company A and Company B -- understood their lobbying efforts were ultimately being directed by the Ukrainian government.
The indictment, of course, stopped short of naming either company. From media reports and FARA disclosures we know, however, of two specific companies that were lobbying on behalf of the ECMU allegedly under the direction of Manafort and Gates. In August of 2016, the Associated Press reported Manafort helped "secretly route" payments from Ukraine's pro-Russian governing party to two high-powered firms, the Podesta Group and Mercury. Neither Manafort, Gates, or either firm had registered their work in accordance with FARA at the time, though each has since filed retroactive disclosures.
Already by Monday afternoon, NBC News had reported three sources confirmed to the outlet that Company A is Mercury Public Affairs and Company B is the Podesta Group.
Both firms have said the ECMU stated in writing "it was not aligned with any foreign political entity," as the AP put it.
And therein lies the problem. The indictment makes allegations that would mean both Company A and Company B knew their work for the ECMU was ultimately being directed by the Ukrainian government. If Company A and Company B are the Podesta Group and Mercury, both of which did not file FARA disclosures, information in the indictment suggests there is evidence to prove the unnamed firms knowingly failed to register as foreign agents.
Paragraph 20 of the indictment, signed by special counsel Robert Mueller, says Gates wrote to Company A in February of 2012 that it would be "representing the Government of Ukraine in [Washington,] DC." If Company A did not file a FARA disclosure, it likely violated the law.
The indictment, crucially, also claims Gates wrote to both firms 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. Thus, that evidence would also dispute attempt by Company B to argue it was unaware its work was ultimately, if indirectly, on behalf of the Ukrainian government.
Paragraph 23 alleges both companies signed contracts with the ECMU despite never meeting them, and says the companies were not paid for their work by the Centre but through offshore accounts.
Amid media reports on then-Trump campaign chairman Manafort's ties to Ukraine, the indictment claims Gates sent "false talking points to Company B in writing," to which a 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."
Sources identified as current or former Podesta Group employees have made claims in news reports supporting the case that the firm knew its work was ultimately on behalf of the Ukrainian government or at least knew it was ethically dubious. I compiled some of these accounts here just last week.
For instance, a former Podesta Group employee said Gates "described the nonprofit's role in an April 2012 meeting as supplying a source of money that could not be traced to the Ukrainian politicians who were paying him and Manafort." Three other current and former Podesta Group employees told the AP the ECMU work caused disagreements to break out among staffers, one of whom also said they considered the arrangement to be "obviously illegal."
Seven people who were lobbied by the Podesta Group throughout their work for the ECMU told CNN the company "left a clear impression that they were representing Ukraine's government." Whether or not the Podesta Group is one of the companies named in the indictment, if those claims are accurate, the firm appears to have violated FARA requirements since it filed a disclosure years after the work was completed.
Hours after Manafort and Gates surrendered to federal authorities on Monday, Tony Podesta announced he was stepping down as head of the Podesta Group. Days earlier, NBC News reported that Podesta and his firm were under federal criminal investigation by Mueller, a probe that grew out of the special counsel investigation into Russian collusion.
On his Fox News show last week, Tucker Carlson reported a source who has been interviewed extensively as part of the investigation told him Mueller's probe "has broadened to determine which people and organizations in Washington have spent years working secretly as de facto operatives on behalf of the Russia government," and "the Podesta Group is chief among these de facto foreign operatives."
Both Manafort and Gates are pleading not guilty to all charges.