Feds Charge Greg Craig, Former Obama Lawyer Tied to Manafort Ukraine Report

By adam.rawnsley@thedailybeast.com (Adam Rawnsley)
Mark Wilson/Getty

Federal prosecutors have charged President Obama’s former White House counsel with making false statements in connection with his role in disseminating a report commissioned by Paul Manafort.

Prosecutors allege that as an attorney in private practice, Greg Craig lied to officials at the Foreign Agents Registration Act unit after the Justice Department launched an investigation into Paul Manafort’s illegal lobbying on behalf of his pro-Russian clients in Ukraine. The charges, spurred by a referral from then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, mark the first time the Russia investigation has led to a criminal complaint against a prominent former Democratic official.

Craig was a partner at Skadden Arps in 2012 when Manafort arranged for the firm to write a report about his client, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and the prosecution of Yanukovych’s former political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Skadden reached a settlement with the Justice Department in January 2019 over its work with the Ukrainian government. As part of the agreement, the firm admitted that “a partner then at Skadden made false and misleading statements to the FARA Unit, which led it to conclude in 2013 that the firm was not obligated to register under FARA.” Under the deal, Skadden Arps agreed to register as a foreign agent and pay $4.6 million to the U.S. Treasury—the cost of its work on the report.

Prosecutors say Craig, who led a team of Skadden lawyers in writing the report, ventured into lobbying when he allegedly offered a copy of the report to a New York Times reporter, subsequently identified as David Sanger, and pitched him on a call with a lobbyist for Ukraine in advance of its release. Craig’s conversations with the Times reporter took place shortly after he met with Manafort and a public relations firm to discuss the media strategy for the report’s rollout, and prosecutors viewed his media calls as an outgrowth of the strategy meeting.

The indictment alleges that Craig began lying to officials at the Justice Department's FARA unit when they inquired about his contacts with the media shortly after the Times story ran. In a meeting with the chief of the FARA unit and in a subsequent letter, prosecutors say, Craig falsely claimed that his conversations with reporters “was done in response to requests from the media” and that the Ukrainian government neither knew of it nor directed it.

In particular, they claim that Craig failed to tell FARA officials he had “recommended and facilitated” the Ukrainian government's choice of a PR firm, had been briefed on the firm's strategy, and had recommended Sanger as a recipient for the report after he met with the PR firm and a lobbyist for Ukraine.

The indictment quotes a handful of emails from Craig meant to back up claims that his media outreach was allegedly an extension of a Ukrainian government-directed PR strategy and not a responsive correction of the record.

Craig allegedly emailed Sanger in December 2012 with the explanation that “the Ukrainians have determined that you should be given first look” at the report.

In an email sent shortly after Craig handed an advance copy of the report to the Times, the lawyer reported to a PR firm working for Ukraine that he told Sanger “it was his if he wanted to use it” and that “tomorrow is not too late for [another U.S. reporter] or for [another major U.S. newspaper].”

In discussions with prosecutors, Craig’s attorneys have doubled down on his claims about contacts with the media, according to CNN. They claim Craig only spoke with the Times in order to correct an unspecified mischaracterization of the report and that the prosecution represented an attempt to make the Russia investigation and its spin-off prosecutions, which have primarily targeted Republicans, seem less partisan.

The Skadden report featured prominently in court documents filed in Manafort’s Washington, D.C., lobbying case. The special counsel’s office alleged that Manafort’s choice of “the lead attorney at Skadden was made with the United States lobbying effort in mind" and that the report Craig spearheaded was “misleading and used to justify the political prosecution and jailing of a political opponent.” Skadden earned $4.6 million for the report, paid through Manafort’s offshore accounts in Cyprus, but the Ukrainian government publicly claimed that the work cost only $12,000.

Craig resigned from Skadden in April 2018, shortly after attorney Alexander Van Der Zwaan pleaded guilty to lying to the special counsel’s office about his work on the report. Van Der Zwaan, whom Skadden fired in 2017, destroyed emails requested by the special counsel and lied about talking points he passed to Manafort aide Rick Gates and an advance copy of the report he slipped to a public relations firm. He served a 30-day prison sentence after pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate with Mueller’s office.  

Prosecutors said that the Skadden report was one part of a sprawling illegal lobbying campaign that enlisted other Washington heavyweights, Mercury Public Affairs and the Podesta Group, to sell Washington on Yanukovych’s government. The special counsel’s office alleged that Manafort used an obscure think tank in Brussels as a cut-out to allow Mercury and the Podesta Group to lobby for the Ukrainian government without registering as foreign agents. Mercury subsequently registered with the Justice Department for its Ukraine work but the Podesta Group fared worse. Its founder, Tony Podesta, left the firm shortly after Mueller indicted Manafort in October 2017, and the firm closed seven months later.

The charges against Craig are another sign that the Russia investigation has led to increased vigilance in enforcing foreign lobbying rules by the Justice Department. The department announced in March that Brandon Van Grack, a special counsel’s office prosecutor who worked on Manafort’s Virginia tax and bank fraud trial, would take over as the head of the Foreign Agents Registration Act unit.

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