The highest-profile recent fara prosecutions in recent decades include the ring of Russian spies arrested in 2010, who were charged with violating the law, and the Cuban 5 spy ring in 1998. But for highly paid Washington lobbyists representing foreign governments, these prosecutions are rare.
The indictment alleges that Manafort and Gates were deeply involved in the lobbying work that two firms, which are not named in the indictment, did on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based group that was essentially a front for Yanukovych. And it alleges that they lied about this work, telling the government that they had merely connected the Centre with the firms and left it at that. In fact, the indictment says, the two were basically running the show: “At the direction of Manafort and Gates, Company A and Company B engaged in extensive lobbying.” Manafort and Gates allegedly handled the firms’ payment via offshore accounts.
Though the firms are not named in the indictment, all signs point to two major Washington lobbying outfits: Mercury and the Podesta Group. Both firms received subpoenas from Mueller’s office in August and hired outside counsel to deal with the Manafort and Gates situation after an AP story last year identified the duo as having worked with the firms on the Ukraine matter. At the time, the Podesta Group’s Kimberly Fritts said in a statement that the firm had received assurances that the Centre did not secretly represent a foreign country or political party, and that it was considering legal action against the Centre.
Fallout from the indictment was immediate at one of these firms on Monday, as Tony Podesta, the Democratic lobbyist and brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, stepped down from the Podesta Group, Politico reported.
Vin Weber, the former congressman who was Mercury’s lead lobbyist on the account, told Yahoo last year that Manafort had recruited him for the effort, but would not tell him who was behind it. Weber did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday.
“It’s without a doubt the biggest fara prosecution ever, and I think the facts outlined in the indictment raise big questions for the two firms,” said Matthew Miller, a former DOJ spokesman. “It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that people with either firm have been cooperating with Mueller, and we may see more guilty pleas in the near future.”
Though Manafort’s and Gates’s involvement wasn’t obvious at the time, the campaign being waged in Washington on behalf of the Centre was not particularly subtle.
Ahead of the 2012 Ukrainian parliamentary elections, the group planted talking points in the U.S. conservative media through an operative, George Scoville, who provided material and recruited bloggers from several websites to write Yanukovych-friendly pieces, as I reported in 2013. Scoville even gave them suggested tweets. One of the writers approached in this scheme told me at the time that they had been offered $500 as part of the deal. Scoville didn’t return a request for comment on Monday.