Former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig charged with false statements, concealing information

Kevin Johnson and Brad Heath and Bart Jansen
Prosecutors charged Gregory Craig with lying about his work on behalf of Ukraine. It was part of a lobbying effort by ex-Trump aide Paul Manafort.
President Barack Obama talks with White House Counsel Gregory Craig, after Craig, and other White House staff members were sworn-in, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.

WASHINGTON – Gregory Craig, who served as White House counsel to President Barack Obama, was charged with lying and concealing information from federal authorities in the first case against a prominent Democrat stemming from Russia special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

The charges center on work Craig performed in 2012 on behalf of a pro-Russian political faction in Ukraine, part of an illicit lobbying effort by Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Manafort was one of six top Trump associates charged in Mueller's inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. He was sentenced to a combined prison term of more than seven years last month after financial fraud convictions in Virginia and Washington, all  related to his work in Ukraine. 

Craig, 74, is accused of making false statements and concealing information from the Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Unit regarding his work for the Ukrainian government. People who lobby on behalf of foreign governments in the USA are required to register with the department. Craig was also charged with repeating those lies to Mueller's investigators in 2017. 

Craig’s attorneys, William Taylor and William Murphy, called the government action an abuse of power. “Mr. Craig is not guilty of any charge and the government's stubborn insistence on prosecuting Mr. Craig is a misguided abuse of prosecutorial discretion,” the attorneys said in a joint statement.

The lobbying campaign happened after Craig left the Obama administration and before Trump began seeking the presidency. 

The attorney's former law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, agreed in January to pay $4.6 million to the Justice Department for its work on behalf of Ukraine's government. At that time, prosecutors did not identify Craig but said a senior partner at the firm had lied to the department about the work to avoid having to register with the government when working on behalf of a foreign power.

Skadden was hired to write a report about the prosecution of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for abusing the powers of her office. The country's new government, closely aligned with Russia, sought to portray the trial as fair and improve Ukraine's public image, but Craig didn't want to report the work under the registration act, the indictment says.

“I don’t want to register as a foreign agent under FARA,” Craig wrote  Feb. 13, 2012, according to the indictment. “I think we don’t have to with this assignment, yes?”

Craig secured a $4 million commitment for the work after meeting with an unnamed, wealthy Ukrainian on April 6, 2012, according to the indictment. Craig negotiated with the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice for a contract that falsely stated the work wouldn’t require reporting to the U.S. government and would be worth about $12,000, the indictment says.

Members of the law firm again discussed whether to report the work to the U.S. government. “I don’t really care who you ask but we need an answer from someone who we can rely on with a straight face,” Craig replied April 16, 2012, according to the indictment.

Craig’s firm received the $4 million from the private Ukrainian as promised after it passed through a third-party bank account in Cyprus, the indictment says. A Ukrainian newspaper questioned in an editorial the publicly announced amount of $12,000, saying it “could not seriously have been the total amount that Ukraine was paying,” the indictment says.

The firm’s lawyers discussed disclosing the larger payment, but the Ukrainian who sent the money objected to being identified, the indictment says. The firm backdated a letter and invoices to the Ukrainian government totaling $1.25 million to give the appearance of a larger official payment, according to the indictment.

Craig’s firm had to avoid publicly promoting its report favoring Ukraine's new government for fear of running afoul of the U.S. reporting law, but Craig provided background briefings to reporters who questioned the fairness of Tymoshenko's prosecution, the indictment says.

Craig was congratulated on the resulting media coverage, the indictment says. “People in Kiev are very happy,” a lobbyist wrote Craig on Dec. 12, 2012, according to the indictment. “You are ‘THE MAN.’”

Craig, whose case was referred by Mueller to other Justice prosecutors, was Obama's White House counsel in 2009 and 2010.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig charged with false statements, concealing information