Judge Weighs Whether To Toss Key Evidence In Mueller’s Case Against Manafort

Molly Riley/FR170882 AP

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. grappled Wednesday with whether key evidence obtained by the FBI against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort should be admitted at his trial.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson spent the bulk of the hearing discussing the FBI search of Manafort’s storage unit. The main issue is whether an employee of Manafort’s had the authority to allow an FBI agent to enter the unit before a search warrant was obtained. Manafort’s lawyers argue that the employee did not have the authority to grant a third party access to the unit. Jackson also asked both legal teams about the search of Manafort’s residence, for which Manafort’s lawyers argue the warrant was overly broad.

Manafort wants evidence from both seizures to be suppressed, which would deal a serious blow to special counsel Robert Mueller’s case.

As previous filings revealed, an employee for Manafort allowed an FBI agent entry to a storage unit where the agent saw filing cabinets and boxes, as well as some of the labels on the boxes. The employee’s name was on the lease for the unit, and the employee told the agent that he placed items inside the unit for Manafort.

The FBI agent then sought and obtained a search warrant and seized the records in storage unit. Though Jackson had ordered the FBI agent who conducted the search to be present at the hearing, Manafort’s lawyers decided it would not be necessary to question the agent.

The lawyer arguing for Manafort for this portion of the hearing, Thomas Zehnle, argued that the employee did not have the authority to grant the agent access to the unit because he only brought filings to the unit at Manafort’s “direction.” Zehnle said that the agent did not ask the employee enough questions to determine whether he had the authority to allow a third party entry to the unit. At one point, Zehnle compared the situation to his recent decision to hire a pet sitter. He said that just because the pet sitter had a key to his home temporarily did not mean that the individual had any authority to do whatever he or she pleased in the home.

Jackson spent a lot of the hearing quizzing Zehnle on the case law that backed up his argument that the employee did not have the authority to give the agent access to the unit, at one point telling Zehnle she was “shocked” by how few cases had been cited to back up his arguments on mutual use.

The special counsel’s office argued that because the employee had a key, was listed on the lease and conducted business for Manafort in the unit, he had the authority to grant the FBI agent access.

As for the residence search, the lawyer arguing for Manafort in that portion of the hearing, Richard Westling, said that the warrant obtained by the government was overly broad given that it lacked specifics on which files agents were seeking from Manafort’s home. Westling complained that the government could search “every piece of paper in the place” and argued that the government should have returned any documents copied from Manafort’s devices to Manafort.

“You couldn’t construct a warrant any broader than this,” Westling said.

Meisler, the lawyer arguing for the government, argued that the warrant was not overly broad, citing specific possible offenses that the government listed in the search warrant. He also noted that some devices were returned to Manafort and that copies taken from devices need to be kept in their entirety to maintain authenticity.

In the Washington, D.C. case, Manafort faces charges of money laundering, tax evasion, and failure to disclose foreign lobbying, stemming from his lobbying work in Ukraine. He faces additional charges in Virginia stemming from that same lobbying work. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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