Witness For The Prosecution: How Rick Gates Went From Paul Manafort’s Protégé To His Greatest Nemesis

TPM Illustration. Photo by Getty Images/Mark Wilson

He’s been called Paul Manafort’s “right-hand-man,” his “protegé,” and even Manafort’s “rabbi.” Now Rick Gates — who, at one time, was also Manafort’s co-defendant — is expected to be the key witness against his old business partner and mentor in his trial on bank and tax fraud charges.

After a rocky road to cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, Gates is expected to provide critical testimony against Manafort, whose own attorney has called Gates the “heart” of the government’s case.

“He’s not Manafort’s brain, but he knows Manafort’s brain,” said Patrick Cotter, a former prosecutor, who worked on the conviction of John Gotti. “If anyone on earth knows Manafort’s brain and intentions it’s Rick Gates, and Rick Gates is going to get on the stand and say, ‘Let me tell ya. His intentions were to commit crimes.'”

Much of the evidence prosecutors are putting forward is what lawyers call a “document case,” i.e. the financial records showing where millions of dollars have traveled and whether or not those cash-flows were properly disclosed or subjected to taxes under federal law.

On the one hand, such evidence is hard for Manafort’s attorneys to dispute — “because really hard to cross examine a document,” Cotter said— but it could be boring or difficult for jurors to follow.

“As a close business associate of Manafort, Gates can serve as a sort of narrator to help the jury understand the significance of these documents,” Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney said in an email to TPM, pointing to the number of email exchanges including Gates that are referenced in Mueller’s exhibit list.

“Gates can provide context for these messages, which can, in turn, corroborate Gates’s testimony,” she said.

More specifically, Gates could provide evidence of intent in Manafort’s actions, and a desire to conceal payments or to mislead lenders.

Certain court documents filed in the proceedings give a hint of what Gates could testify about.

The indictment unveiled when Gates was a co-defendant described his “assistance” in Manafort’s alleged illegal acts, from disguising income from Ukraine as loans, to allegedly misleading accountants about foreign bank accounts that they should have disclosed to the government.

The indictment accused Gates of misrepresenting Manafort’s financial history in applications for loans. Gates allegedly converted a PDF of a financial record to a Word document so that Manafort could edit his listed income, according to the indictment. Gates falsely claimed in a letter to a bank that a $300,000 delinquency on Manafort’s credit card was a loan to him that Gates intended to pay back, the prosecutors alleged.

Furthermore, according to former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman, Gates will also help prosecutors prove that money traveling through Manafort’s accounts was earned while working in Ukraine, advising pro-Russian politicians starting in the mid-aughts and through 2014,

“This wasn’t inherited by his rich uncle who dies in Ukraine or whatever,” Akerman said. “It blocks out that defense.”

Gates was at Manafort’s side from the beginning of that work. The 45-year-old first came into the lobbyist’s orbit as an intern in the 1990s, at the firm Black, Manafort, Stone, Kelly.

Their paths crossed again in 2006, when Manafort hired Gates — under his spin-off firm Davis Manafort— as he was launching on a lucrative consulting endeavor in Ukraine. Manafort would eventually help Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the Russia-aligned Party of Regions, win the presidency in 2010.

Hundreds of pages of government evidence — which became public when Manafort’s attorneys sought to exclude the materials at trial — document Gates’ involvement in Manafort’s Ukraine dealings. They include meeting agendas on which Gates is listed, emails where’s he’s CC’ed and even edits to memos that Gates was expected to make, according to the documents’ track changes feature.

“We have once again reached the point in time where we should cast aside all US political work in favor of everyone’s most beloved country — Ukraine,” Gates wrote in a 2014 email to some American political strategists.

That consulting work was often funded by oligarchs, Gates told the FBI in a 2014 interview quoted in a Mueller search warrant. Gates and Manafort also pursued side business ventures with those oligarchs.

It was two years after Yanukovych was ousted from Ukraine that Gates and Manafort found themselves again in close proximity to ascendant power, when they joined (and for a three-month period Manafort led) Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. While scrutiny of the Ukraine dealings pushed the one-time campaign chairman out, Gates stayed on, serving as a liaison to the Republican National Committee, while earning the reputation of a competent executor of the Trump team’s day-to-day operations.

He stayed close to Trump’s inner circle after the election. He served on Trump’s inaugural committee, then for a political group supportive of the President’s agenda, and finally as an aide Trump’s close friend, Tom Barrack, with whom Gates was spotted lurking around the White House through last summer.

When Mueller initially filed charges — which came first in an indictment handed down in October by a grand jury in D.C. — Gates seemed ready to fight the case. He pleaded not guilty, and through a spokesman said, “This fight is just beginning.”

Over time, the financial wear of defending the cases became evident. He struggled to make bail, taking more than two months to hash out the $5 million bond deal that secured his release from house arrest. A legal defense fund effort on his behalf backfired when a video he filmed for one of its fundraisers prompted a scolding from a judge, who had imposed a gag order on the D.C. case.

The first public hints that he was considering cooperating came when CNN reported in January that he had hired a new attorney, who had a reputation for hashing out plea deals. A week later, his original attorneys filed under seal a request to withdraw their representation of him. Mystery surrounded the secret motions and closed door hearings related to the legal team switch-up.

Up until the the day before Mueller unveiled Gates’ plea deal, there were contradicting reports on whether he would actually flip. Mueller ramped up the pressure with additional charges against Manafort and Gates, in Virginia, on Feb 22. The next day Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States and to making a false statement to the government, which had occurred during his plea negotiations earlier that month.

According to former prosecutors, Gates’ agreement with Mueller will likely be a target of Manafort’s attorneys when they get a chance to cross examine him. They might specifically flag for the jury the false statement to which Gates pleaded, or more broadly argue that Gates is only testifying against Manafort to save his own skin.

However, it is just as likely the prosecutors will try to inoculate Gates from his line of questioning by letting him explain the plea deal in their initially questioning

“Some people call it pulling the tooth or drawing the sting,” former Manhattan federal prosecutor Harry Sandick told TPM. “But [prosecutors] don’t just leave those for the defense to cross-examine and make it seem to the jury like the government was hiding that.”

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