In testimony about the events leading up to a search of Paul Manafort’s storage unit, a FBI agent revealed Friday that federal prosecutors and the FBI may have been tipped off to the possibility that Manafort maintained storage lockers after an April meeting with four Associated Press reporters.
The revelation came in a hearing in front of U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis on motions ahead of the trial in the case brought against Manafort in Virginia, which is set to being next month. Manafort, who is in jail while he awaits trial, was not present at the hearing.
The meeting between the AP reporters and investigators was previously known, and pointed to by Manafort in a court filing about media leaks related to the case.
However, FBI special agent Jeff Pfeiffer went into new detail about the actions he took after the meeting that culminated in the search of the storage unit in Virginia. Manafort has requested that the judge suppress the evidence from the search, because before getting a warrant, Pfeiffer entered the unit with the permission of a Manafort employee who had a key to it.
The meeting was set up on April 11, 2017, for prosecutors and FBI agents to receive information being offered by the AP reporters, Pfeiffer said during questioning by Uzo Asonye, an attorney representing special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. One of the AP reporters, who were in the midst of their own Manafort investigation, mentioned that Manafort had a storage unit. Pffiefer in his testimony said that it was either that meeting or other investigative efforts that led him to learn of the units.
Asonye asked Pfeiffer how the government officials responded to the information brought to them by the reporters. The agent said that the response from the officials was generally “no comment.”
In statement after the hearing, AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said that “Associated Press journalists met with representatives from the Department of Justice in an effort to get information on stories they were reporting, as reporters do.”
“During the course of the meeting, they asked DOJ representatives about a storage locker belonging to Paul Manafort, without sharing its name or location,” she said in the statement.
A week later, having secured a subpoena for the leases on the Manafort storage unit, Pfeiffer traveled to the facility and met with its manager. There, he received a list of individuals associated with the leases that he used as a list of potential interviewees, the agent said. The first person he interviewed on the list was Alex Trusko, an Manafort employee whose name was on one of the leases and had a key to the unit, where he moved files for Manafort.
After interviewing Trusko at his home on May 26, the agent went back to the facility, where Trusko let him into the unit, the agent said. Pfeiffer made observations and took photos, according to his testimony, but did not remove any items. Prosecutors then obtained a warrant and executed the search the next day.
During Manafort attorney Thomas Zehnle’s cross-examination of Pfeiffer, he asked the agent to name specifically who was at the meeting. He remembered DOJ prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, who is now on the Mueller team, and two other federal prosecutors from the DOJ, and named two other agents, besides himself who were there for the FBI.
Pfeiffer said there were four AP reporters present, but did not remember their names.
Zehnle then directed the questioning to notes that were taken memorializing the meeting with the AP. The notes, according to Zehnle, said that at the end of the meeting the AP reporters asked the officials if they were “off base” with what they were pursuing, and that they were advised that they had a good understanding of Manafort’s business dealings.
Pfeiffer said he did not remember such a remark being made.
In addition to the storage unit search, Ellis heard brief arguments Friday on Manafort’s request that the evidence from a July search of his residence be thrown out.
Ellis said he would take both search-related requests under advisement.
Manafort’s attorneys had additionally asked that the judge hold a hearing an alleged government leaks to the media. After a back-and-forth with Ellis, in which Ellis made clear he would not dismiss the case on the basis of the alleged leaks, Manafort attorney Kevin Downing indicated he would seek a change of venue for the case.
“You better marshall all your evidence,” Ellis told Downing, adding that he should “do it quickly.”
Ellis announced he was denying a Mueller motion for a written jury questionnaire, and he walked through the oral process he’d go through to question a juror’s potential biases, known as voir dire. He said he would accept proposed questions from both sides, and they could submit additional proposed questions during the process.
“We are not going to ask jurors who they voted for,” Ellis said, and he was not going to question them on what magazines they read.
“We are not going to go down that road,” Ellis said.
Manafort was indicted by a federal grand jury on bank fraud, tax fraud and other financial crimes, mostly involving his consulting work for Ukraine before he became Trump’s campaign manager. He has pleaded not guilty.
The trial is scheduled to being July 25.
Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from an AP spokeswoman.