Before the earthquake of an indictment that became public Monday against ex-Trump aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, a quieter battle was going on behind the scenes between them and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office — one that was detailed in another court document that was unsealed Monday.
An unsealed opinion of the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia sheds light on the move by Mueller to have Manafort’s own attorney answer questions in front of his grand jury. His desire to speak with the lawyer, Melissa Laurenza, was previously reported. However, what was not known publicly until the opinion’s release was how hard Gates and Manafort fought her appearance, what exactly Mueller was seeking from her, and how his team won over the judge overseeing the proceeding.
The back-and-forth played out over two weeks, three hearings, and multiple filings, Chief Judge Beryl Howell said in her opinion.
With the indictment that was also released Monday, we see the crucial role Laurenza’s participation played. In it, the government alleges Manafort and Gates “repeatedly provided false information to financial bookkeepers, tax accountants, and legal counsel, among others.”
The line was an unusual but striking move by Mueller, a former federal prosecutor not involved in the case told TPM, as it warned Manafort’s attorneys that they would not be able to claim an obvious defense to the alleged crime: that the actions were the fault of Manafort’s attorneys and accountants
Laurenza did not respond to TPM’s inquiries, while a spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment.
A grand jury subpoena was issued for Laurenza on Aug. 18, according to Howell’s opinion. It took only a day for news of the subpoena to be leaked to CNN, where it was reported it had been issued in connection with the Mueller probe, but that the specific information being sought was still unclear.
The legal battle over whether Laurenza could be forced to testify heated up in mid-September, according to Howell’s opinion. Things came to a head on Sept. 19, when Laurenza’s counsel sent a letter to Mueller saying she would comply with the subpoena but only to the extent it didn’t violate attorney client privilege, which Manafort and Gates had apparently invoked in asking her not to respond to certain questions. Mueller immediately filed a motion to compel Laurenza’s appearance before the grand jury. A day later, Gates sought to intervene in opposition to her appearing in front of the grand jury, resulting in another hearing, another week’s worth of discussions, and two more rounds of filings.
Mueller’s interest in Laurenza appears rooted in the work she did for Manafort and Gates to respond to requests from the Justice Department seeking clarification on the lobbying work they did for a Russia-tied political party in Ukraine.
Manafort and Gates had said they advised the party, the Party of Regions, abroad but had denied their work had involved any lobbying in the U.S., where the Foreign Agents Registration Act would have required it to be disclosed to the Justice Department. Media reports during the 2016 campaign suggested otherwise, and the Justice Department’s FARA office inquired last September with Gates and Manafort about the work they did for what had been ostensibly labeled a think tank. (The special counsel would later call the think tank, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a “mouth piece” for the political party, in the Manafort-Gates indictment.)
Laurenza was retained soon after the Justice Department’s initial inquiry, according to Howell’s opinion, and would produce two separate letters — in November 2016 and February 2017 — in response to the Justice Department’s questions. In the letters, she would claim, among other things, that Manafort and Gates did no outreach for the Party of Regions in the U.S.; that they had no agreement to work for the think tank; that they just played matchmaker in setting the think tank up with lobbying firms that did carry out the campaign; and that their firm’s policy was to delete emails after 30 days, so none of the relevant records to the DOJ’s requests had been retained.
Howell, in her Oct. 2 opinion allowing Laurenza’s grand jury appearance, called the first claim “false, a half-truth, or at least misleading,” and found issues in the rest of the claims Laurenza made in her letters to the Justice Department. Howell referred to evidence that was redacted from her opinion, but is likely among the evidence that shows up in the Manafort-Gates indictment. The indictment referenced messages Gates sent to the other lobbying firms that were working for the think thank, as well as documents federal agents obtained in a raid of Manafort’s home last summer.
Howell cited a number of grounds for why Laurenza’s appearance in front of the grand jury would not violate attorney-client privilege. One reason, she said, is that grand jury’s investigation trumps attorney-client privilege when a person uses the attorney-client relationship to further a criminal scheme.
The questions Howell approved prosecutors asking Laurenza in front of the grand jury focused on who provided Laurenza the information she used to make her claims in the letters to the Justice Department, and whether Manafort and Gates approved of those letters before she sent them.
Having evidence that the allegedly misleading letters were not the result of an attorney’s mistake helps Mueller undercut a defense Manafort and Gates would have likely offered, according to Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who investigated organized crime for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York.
“What the prosecutors did here is that they attempted to kill the defense immediately, before it was raised,” Potter told TPM.
Indeed, in the section of the indictment discussing the allegedly “false and misleading letters” that were submitted to the Justice Department about Manafort’s and Gates’ lobbying work, the government alleged that they “caused” those letters and that they “approved” of those letters before they were submitted with the DOJ.
“When Manafort’s attorney saw it, it probably was sort of a punch in the nose,” Potter said.