It’s one of the stranger episodes in Paul Manafort’s bizarre journey from Trump campaign chairman to the inside of a jail cell.
Even the special counsel seems unsure what to make of a $125,000 payment that went towards paying down a debt of Manafort’s in the summer of 2017, while he was under investigation.
The payment went to reduce a debt that Manafort owed to an unnamed law firm, prosecutors say, and came at a crucial time in the investigation into Trump’s former campaign chair.
Made in June 2017, the cash transfer occurred one month after Mueller was appointed special counsel, and one month before FBI agents raided Manafort’s Alexandria apartment, seizing reams of evidence.
In an initial filing accusing Manafort of lying to the special counsel after agreeing to cooperate, prosecutors wrote that the $125,000 “came from another firm [Firm A], which performed work for an entity, Entity B,” adding that “Manafort has a long relationship with the heads of Firm A and Entity B.”
It appears that the payment was buried within a larger transaction between two entities tied to Manafort, though the details are fuzzy. The entities are not named in filings from prosecutors, but outside reporting helps to fill in the gaps to an extent.
The New York Times has identified Entity B as Rebuilding America Now PAC, which was closely tied to Manafort. It was founded in June 2016 and spent around $23 million in support of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election cycle.
The filing goes on to say that the unidentified “Firm A” signed a contract with the PAC in which it “was to receive a 6% commission on expenditures made to it” from the PAC. That 6 percent was then to be split between two people, according to a declaration from an FBI agent on the case. It’s not clear who those two people were.
The extent of Manafort’s involvement in the scheme is unclear. The transcript of a Feb. 4 hearing in his case shows a prosecutor stating that Manafort “was aware” of the payment scheme, while a judge later found that he had tried to build a false narrative to cover it up.
Prosecutors seem mystified by the payment and its relation to the commission arrangement, which the New York Times reported was suspected to be a kickback scheme involving the pro-Trump super PAC.
“This is definitely an educated guess,” said special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann at Feb. 4 hearing, referring to prosecutor’s attempts at constructing a theory of the payment. “What was really going on was that Mr. Manafort was aware that there was a — to put it charitably, a REDACTED scheme.
Later filings have more details — those indications suggest that the second unnamed company was a firm with ties to Republican operatives, at least one of which had worked closely with Manafort in Ukraine.
A January 2019 declaration from FBI agent Jeffrey Weiland states that one of the firms gave the other “approximately $19 million for REDACTED.”
That $19 million figure provides a clue as to the identity of the redacted company that paid out the mysterious $125,000 to Manafort and received a 6 percent commission from Rebuilding America Now.
A review of Federal Election Commission filings for Rebuilding America Now shows that one company — Virginia-based ad buying firm Multi Media Services — received $18.98 million in payments from the PAC. Multi Media Services is a trade name for First Media Services Corporation.
The filings state that Manafort had a longstanding relationship with the principals of the company, and reporting shows that a top pollster for Trump’s 2016 campaign, Tony Fabrizio, has ties to the firm and to Manafort.
It’s not entirely clear whether Fabrizio had any role in the payment scheme, but he was reportedly interviewed by the special counsel about work he did with Manafort last year.
Virginia corporate records show that Fabrizio serves as an officer of First Media Services Corporation, and has done so since at least 2005. An LA Times story from 2011 states that Fabrizio “shares the second floor” of a quaint building in Alexandria’s old town with Multi Media Services. The story says that the company has “placed ads for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Republican National Committee.”
Fabrizio was reportedly interviewed by the special counsel in February 2018 regarding work he did with Paul Manafort in Ukraine.
He worked with Manafort in Ukraine in 2012 and 2013, and performed some of the first polls for Trump after Manafort joined the campaign in March 2016. CNN reported last month that Mueller asked him about “polling work for Manafort in Ukraine,” and that it was unclear what else was discussed at the interview.
Fabrizio did not reply to repeated requests for comment. Multi Media Services also did not reply to repeated requests for comment.