Paul Manafort faces sealed Feb. 4 hearing on Mueller probe allegations he lied after pleading guilty
© Andrew Harnik/AP In a Nov. 2, 2017, photo, Paul Manafort leaves the federal courthouse in Washington.
A federal judge asked for a hearing behind closed doors before she decides whether Paul Manafort lied repeatedly to prosecutors in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, setting a hearing for Feb. 4, just days before the former Trump campaign chairman faces sentencing in Virginia.
If U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington were to decide he lied and broke his plea agreement, it could spell as much as 10 years more in prison for Manafort when his sentencing finally is set. Manafort faces a likely seven- to 10-year sentence in his related Virginia federal case, according to several legal experts.
Jackson’s decision to hold the hearing came at an hour-long hearing Friday in which prosecutors refused to rule out bringing further charges against Manafort over their accusations he lied, while saying they had no current intention or plans to do so.
“I’m not in any way saying it’s our current intention, it’s a plan, it will happen, but want to preserve that ability,” prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said.
Manafort could “hypothetically” be charged with lying to the FBI, with perjury in front of the grand jury, or with any of the charges prosecutors dropped in exchange for his plea and cooperation, Weissmann said.
The Friday hearing left for another day the merits of the government’s allegation Manafort “intentionally provided false information” to investigators since pleading guilty in federal court in September.
Manafort, 69, who entered court in Washington in a black suit with a red tie, leaning heavily on a cane, did not visibly react to Jackson during the hearing, which Jackson called to “nail down” what the “consequences are or will be, that will flow from the special counsel’s determination” that Manafort breached his plea deal.
Jackson told a courtroom packed with news reporters that she knew the decision to hold the February hearing behind closed doors would be unpopular but said prosecutors needed to discuss sensitive matters regarding ongoing investigations and uncharged individuals, and that she did not see how the parties could address such topics in open court without making mistakes.
Jackson said the court would “get as much of the transcript released as possible, as soon as possible.”
“I have not made any decisions yet,” Jackson said, saying she found aspects of each side’s arguments compelling, while finding fault with others.
Some of prosecutors’ allegations are “confusing or lack context,” she said, while at times the defense rebuttals were “conclusory and short on specifics.”
She said Manafort’s arguments that criminal defendants often misstate the facts in debriefings and correct them later on “have some force.” While “investigators shouldn’t have to pull teeth” to get the truth, the judge said, “not all the issues rise to the level of actual false statements.” But, Jackson added, there are other instances where Manafort “affirmatively advanced a version of events” that prosecutors say was false. In those cases, she said, “he may have lied, pure and simple."
Manafort pleaded guilty Sept. 14, on the eve of trial jury selection in Washington, to conspiring to defraud the United States and conspiring to obstruct justice, admitting to years of financial crimes related to his undisclosed lobbying work for a pro-Russian political party and politician in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
He also was convicted by a jury in August in a separate federal case in Virginia for bank and tax-fraud crimes.
Suggestions of the collapse of Manafort’s cooperation deal have revealed that prosecutors knew far more about his activity since his October 2017 indictment than he realized.
Since late November, when Mueller’s office accused Manafort of lying, the special counsel’s office has filed 800 pages of heavily redacted exhibits to provide evidence for their claims that, among other things, Manafort gave contradictory statements last August in a separate Justice Department criminal investigation outside of Washington; falsely denied having ongoing contact with Trump administration officials since they took office in January 2017; and sought to deceive investigators about his interactions with a longtime Russian aide and co-defendant, Konstantin Kilimnik, including by sharing campaign polling data with him in 2016.
Manafort’s attorneys deny he lied, saying he made honest errors and tried to correct them. “Failure of memory is not akin to a false statement,” attorneys Kevin M. Downing, Thomas E. Zehnle and Richard W. Westling wrote in filings to the court.
Jackson of the District of Columbia, had directed both sides to be ready to argue whether Manafort lied as alleged in a 31-page FBI affidavit. Under Manafort’s plea deal, prosecutors have only to show that their determination he breached the deal was made in “good faith,” with any effect on sentencing to be determined later by a judge.
Manafort’s team has argued that “a fair reading” of much of the government’s evidence about the alleged lies “merely demonstrates a lack of consistency in Mr. Manafort’s recollection of certain facts and events,” many of which occurred years ago or during a high-pressure presidential campaign from which he was fired, they noted.
The consequences of breaching the deal would cost Manafort sentencing credits for acceptance of responsibility.
Manafort has been jailed in Alexandria since June, after the witness tampering charge against him and Kilimnik was filed.
The FBI has assessed that Kilimnik, a Russian employee of Manafort’s consulting business, has links to Russian intelligence, prosecutors said in court papers.
In 2017, Kilimnik denied to The Washington Post having connections to Russian intelligence. He is believed to be in Moscow.
Manafort had asked not to have to be present in court Friday, but Jackson declined and said she wanted him there because of the significance of the issues being heard and to be certain he and his defense team were on the same page about their positions.
She agreed to Manafort’s request to appear in a business suit, not a prison jumpsuit.
Manafort’s defense team inadvertently revealed some of the contested statements about his cooperation agreement in a recent filing when a document formatting error made it possible to view material that was supposed be redacted and blacked out.
The document showed that Mueller accused Manafort of lying about his talks with Kilimnik about a Ukrainian peace plan during the 2016 campaign; a meeting between the men while they were in Madrid; and Kilimnik’s alleged role in the witness tampering effort to which Manafort pleaded guilty.
In addition, prosecutors alleged that Manafort lied when he denied having contact with Trump officials after they joined the administration, citing among other details files in Manafort’s computer that showed last March that he was in communication with a senior administration official and another authorized person via text message to speak with a White House official May 26.
Manafort said prosecutors misread text messages and notes, and that his statements were consistent.
In a final allegation, prosecutors have said Manafort lied about the terms of a $125,000 payment toward an apparent debt he incurred to a company he employed in 2017.
Manafort said he “explained it to the best of his recollection,” and made no attempt to conceal the payment or its source on his income tax return, reporting it as income in “the most tax disadvantageous manner in which it could have been handle
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