Judge Scolds Manafort For Ghostwriting Op-Ed But Won’t Punish Him

FILE - In this July 18, 2016, file photo, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort walks around the convention floor before the opening session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is questioning Donald Trump’s top political aide’s ties to a pro-Kremlin political party in Ukraine, claiming it is evidence of the Republican nominee’s cozy relationship with Russia. The New York Times reported that handwritten ledgers found in Ukraine show $12.7 million in undisclosed payments to Paul Manafort from the pro-Russia party founded by the country’s former president Viktor Yanukovych. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
Carolyn Kaster/AP

A federal judge said Monday that Paul Manafort’s participation in the drafting of an op-ed was exactly the sort of media engagement she had banned in a gag order issued in his case, but indicated she was giving him a pass this time.

“Mr. Manafort, that order applies to you, not just your attorney,” U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said, while deciding to vacate her request that his attorneys prove he didn’t violate the gag order.

Earlier this month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team indicated they were withdrawing from a bail deal with Manafort due to their discovery of an op-ed, intended to run in a Ukrainian outlet, that Manafort had helped edit which defended his work in the country. Manafort has been charged with money laundering, tax evasion and failure to disclose foreign lobbying, as part of Mueller’s Russia probe. He’s pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Manafort’s attorney, Kevin Downing, continued to defend the op-ed Monday, even after the judge said that she considered Manafort’s ghostwriting of the op-ed an attempt to “circumvent” her gag order. 

It’s difficult for Manafort “to sit and watch his reputation” be “besmirched in the press,” Downing said, adding that he would like to get more advice from her on how to manage the negative media attention.

Jackson said it was not her job to give Manafort advice, but that he could come to her with individual queries about whether certain actions would violate the gag order. She noted that his attorneys had had the opportunity to object to her gag order when she first proposed it, but that they had not. “There’s a lot of negative press going on about the prosecutors,” she said, adding that Manafort’s team would accuse them of violating the gag order if they tried to counteract with a move akin to Manafort’s ghostwriting.

Manafort Inching Towards A Bail Package

With the op-ed dealt with, the judge turned to the other issues she had with the bail package his attorneys were assembling in consultation with Mueller’s team.

She raised concerns that some of the properties that Manafort is seeking to put up as bail did not have appraisals connected to them in the court filings. For at least one of them, his attorneys had submitted Zillow listings to show the property’s worth instead.

“Zillow is actually considered to be pretty accurate,” Downing said in defense of the move. The comment drew murmured laughter in the courtroom.

Jackson indicated that she would like to see appraisals or other formal confirmations of the properties’ values before approving them for bail, along with other financial details related to the proposed package.

She was also wary of Manafort’s request that he be able to travel between Florida, New York and the Washington area if he were to be released from home confinement. Jackson suggested that if his package was approved, he would still have to give pre-trial services a fair amount of warning before traveling between the three places.

Gates Waives A Conflict Issue

Another question Jackson dealt with was the potential conflict Rick Gates — the Manafort business partner who’s also been charged in the case — could face because one of his attorneys, Walter Mack, is also representing a Gates associate accused of a film fraud scheme in a separate case in New York.

Gates went through the process of waiving the conflict by answering a number of questions in front of the judge confirming he understood the potential conflict for him.

His attorneys, it appears, still have some ways to go to in hammering out details with Mueller’s team as they come up with a bond package for Gates. In the meantime, Jackson seemed annoyed with the frequent requests Gates has made to leave house arrest for various family events, beyond the general exceptions laid out in the home confinement order. She pointed specifically to his decision to sign on as a coach to one of his children’s sports teams.

Gates, she said, it appeared to her, was trying to turn his home confinement into a “home confinement unless I want to be elsewhere.”

Scheduling Update

The parties in the case agreed to put on the books a status conference on Jan. 16, when they could continue to discuss any discovery issues and begin to come up with a schedule leading into the trial.