Manafort was go-between in secret Ukraine lobbying campaign

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, personally recruited a top lobbyist to join a $2.2 million campaign aimed at influencing U.S. policy toward Ukraine, but refused to tell him who was behind the effort, the lobbyist, former Republican congressman Vin Weber, tells Yahoo News.

Weber, a senior partner at Mercury Group, said in an interview that “Paul did recruit me” in 2012 to lobby on behalf of the newly formed European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based nonprofit that, Manafort told him, was backed by “businesspeople who did not want to give their names.”

Weber said he “repeatedly” asked Manafort to identify the principals behind the Brussels organization, but he declined to do so. In fact, the backers of the nonprofit had close ties to the hardline, pro-Russian government of then Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, and one of the group’s board members was the country’s foreign minister, says Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council and the former president of Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights group.

“It would be very hard to look at this entity and say it was not directed by the then Ukrainian government,” said Karatnycky. “It’s pretty clear they were running interference on sensitive issues on behalf of Yanukovych.”

Manafort’s role in setting up the Washington lobbying campaign on behalf of the Brussels nonprofit was first reported Wednesday by The Associated Press. The AP reported that between 2012 and 2014, Manafort helped channel $1.07 million to the Republican-oriented Mercury Group and another $1.13 million to the Podesta Group, a Democratic firm headed by Tony Podesta, brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. The fees were meant to promote the publicly announced purpose of the nonprofit: to lobby Congress and the Obama administration to support Yanukovych’s bid to gain entry into the European Union.

Weber’s account shows how Manafort’s work for the Kiev regime may have gone beyond his self-described role as a campaign adviser to Yanukovych to include active — and previously secret — efforts to influence U.S. policy in the region. Asked for comment for this story, Manafort Wednesday night said in an email: “I never worked for the center. I introduced them to D.C. firms who worked directly for the center.” He added that The Associated Press account was “wrong. I was not involved in any payment plans” from the center to the two Washington lobbying firms.

Vladimir Putin, right, and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych at a news conference in Moscow. Moscow granted Yanukovych protection shortly after the leader sought help from the Kremlin, according to an official quoted by Russian news agencies in 2013. (Photo: Ivan Sekretarev/AP)

The new details about Manafort’s Ukraine work come on a day that Trump shook up his faltering campaign, replacing Manafort as campaign manager with pollster Kellyanne Conway, and naming Steven Bannon, head of Breitbart News, as campaign CEO. Manafort will remain as campaign chairman despite mounting questions about his Ukrainian ties following a report this week by the New York Times. The Times disclosed that the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Bureau, an arm of the current Ukrainian government of President Petro Poroshenko, is investigating ledgers that appear to show $12.7 million in “off-the-book cash” payments to Manafort between 2007 and 2012.

Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland in July. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Manafort has strongly denied the report, saying in a statement Monday that he never received any of those payments, “nor have I ever done work for the governments of Ukraine or Russia.” Calling himself a “campaign professional” who like other American political consultants has worked overseas, Manafort said in his statement “all of the political payments directed to me were for my entire political team: campaign staff (local and international), polling and research, election integrity and television advertising.” (He did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)

The new details about Manafort’s work on behalf of the Brussels nonprofit revive questions that have been swirling for years about his work on behalf of Yanukovych’s “Party of Regions” — the political party aligned with Russian president Vladimir Putin. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal first reported that Manafort was advising Yanukovych (then the country’s prime minister) and his principal financial backer, metals billionaire Rinat Akhmetov. Manafort had accompanied Yanukovych on a trip to Washington the year before and helped set up meetings for the prime minister with journalists and a Washington think tank, the Journal reported.

Manafort never registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent — as he would have been required to do if he was lobbying on behalf of a foreign government or a foreign political party. But in January 2008, another Washington firm, Daniel J. Edelman Inc., parent of the Edelman public relations firm, did register with the Justice Department, stating it had been hired by Manafort’s consulting firm, Davis Manafort, to promote Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in the United States.

“Edelman [was] retained by the Ukraine Party of Regions through Davis Manafort International LLC to develop a communication campaign to increase Prime Minister Yanukovych’s visibility in the U.S. and Europe,” according to a copy of the Edelman filing with the Justice Department reviewed by Yahoo News.

Vin Weber, co-chairman and partner at Mercury and special adviser to the economic policy team for Mitt Romney for President, speaks at the Bloomberg Washington Summit in Washington, D.C., in 2012. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Weber told Yahoo News that when he was first solicited by Manafort to lobby on behalf of the Brussels-based organization, he was wary. Although Manafort declined to identify the business interests that were behind the nonprofit, “it seemed logical that these were backers of the Party of Regions. … I never doubted they were tied to Yanukovych.” And, Weber said, he told Manafort he viewed Yanukovych as somebody “who was in Putin’s hip pocket.”

But Manafort sought to convince him otherwise, Weber said. Manafort “told me that Yanukovych actually hated Putin,” Weber recounts, but was facing “conflicting pressures” within his party. Gaining American support for Ukraine to join the European Union would help steer Yanukovych toward the West, Manafort told Weber. Weber agreed to take the job.

Lobbying reports filed by Mercury on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine indicate its work was not limited to issues relating to Ukraine’s application to join the European Union. (The application was withdrawn by Yanukovych in 2013.) Among the issues Mercury lobbied on, the reports show, was opposing congressional resolutions to condemn the political persecution and later arrest by Yanukovych’s government of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, and a resolution condemning “illegal Russian aggression in Ukraine.” Asked how opposition to these measures related to the stated goal of the center, Weber said “our focus was to prevent messages that were sent out from Washington” that would undercut the country’s bid to join the European Union.

While Weber and Mercury had the task of lobbying Republicans in Congress, Tony Podesta’s firm, the Podesta Group, was retained to press the nonprofit’s cause with Democrats and the Obama administration. Podesta in an email told Yahoo News he was recruited by Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates. Kimberly Fritts, chief executive officer of the Podesta Group, stated in a follow-up email: “We were not aware that Rick Gates was a Party of Regions consultant at the time he introduced us to the Centre. Our assumption was that he was working for the Centre, as we were hired to do.”

The AP reported that there a dispute within the Podesta Group as to whether the firm was required to register with the Justice Department as agents of a foreign principal. Neither Podesta nor Weber’s firm, Mercury, did so, instead filing standard lobbying reports with Congress, identifying their client as the Brussels nonprofit, but making no mention of the Party of Regions, Yanukovych or Manafort. Weber and Fritts both said they relied on a legal opinion by Ken Gross, a well-known Washington ethics lawyer. They say Gross told them registration was not required, based on a written contract with the center stating that “none of the activities of the Centre” are directed, supervised or financed “in whole or in major part by a government of a foreign country or a foreign political party.” (Weber said his questions to Manafort about the center’s backers were a “matter of curiosity, not necessity.”)

But Karatnycky, the Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council, said the representations that the center made to the Washington lobbyists were suspect all along. As the Daily Beast first reported in 2014, one of the center’s first presidents was Leonid Kozhara, a senior member of the Party of Regions who in December 2012 was appointed as Yanukovych’s foreign minister.

Moreover, the Ukrainian press has reported close ties between the center and two wealthy brothers and businessmen, Sergei and Andrei Klyuyev, influential figures in the Party of Regions. Accompanied by one of Mercury’s lobbyists, Sergei Klyuyev, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, had met with Washington officials on behalf of the center in 2013. His brother, Andrei, became Yanukovych’s chief of staff and is alleged to have ordered the crackdowns on protesters, leading to the collapse of the government in 2014 and Yanukovych’s flight to exile in Moscow.

Kozhara and the Klyuyev brothers “were the hardline faction around Yanukovych,” said Karatnycky. “They were three key people in power-structure positions in the Party of Regions.”

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