WASHINGTON – A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Paul Manafort lied to investigators after signing a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller's office.
US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote that prosecutors "established by a preponderance of the evidence" that Manafort made false statements about his communications with longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a separate, as-yet-nonpublic Justice Department investigation, and a payment related to a debt that Manafort owed a law firm.
But Jackson found that Mueller's office did not prove that Manafort intentionally made false statements about his contacts with the Trump administration or about Kilimnik's role in the obstruction of justice conspiracy that Manafort pleaded guilty to last fall in federal district court in Washington, DC. Kilimnik, a Russian Ukrainian who Mueller's office says has ties to Russian intelligence, is a codefendant with Manafort but has never appeared in court.
Mueller's office has said it doesn't plan on bringing criminal charges against Manafort related to the alleged false statements. Whether Manafort lied and violated his plea deal bears on his sentencing — a violation of the agreement after pleading guilty would hurt any argument Manafort makes before the judge for leniency.
Mueller's office is also absolved of having to support a lower sentence, which it had agreed to as part of the deal. Prosecutors could get out of their obligations in the agreement if they made a "good faith" determination that there was a breach, and Manafort's lawyers had said they wouldn't fight that issue. Jackson wrote in Wednesday's order that she found the government did make its determination in "good faith."
Jackson's decision could also affect the sentence Manafort receives in the other case that Mueller's office filed against him in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. US District Judge T.S. Ellis III put sentencing there on hold until the plea deal breach issue is resolved in Manafort's DC case.
Jackson's order came several hours after the judge announced her decision during a sealed hearing. Manafort was present in court, along with his lawyers and prosecutors from Mueller's office, but none of the lawyers spoke with reporters about what had happened after the hearing. Jackson's written order was sparse, but she ordered the transcript of Wednesday's hearing be made public. Both sides will get a chance to propose redactions before it is released.
A spokesperson for Manafort declined to comment. A spokesperson for the special counsel's office declined to comment.
The prosecutions against Manafort in Washington and Virginia both revolved around Manafort's political consulting work on behalf of the government of Ukraine, work that predated his time as chair of Trump's presidential campaign in the summer of 2016.
In August, a federal jury in Virginia found Manafort guilty of eight counts of financial crimes — filing false income tax returns, failing to report foreign bank accounts, and bank fraud. The jury hung on the remaining 10 counts, and the judge declared a mistrial on those charges.
Manafort was set to go to trial in the Washington case after the Virginia trial ended, but right before jury selection began in mid-September 2018, he entered a guilty plea. He pleaded guilty to two counts, conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The first conspiracy charge encompassed the broad range of financial and reporting crimes that Manafort was charged with, and the obstruction charge involved an alleged joint effort with Kilimnik to interfere with potential witnesses several months after he was first charged by Mueller's office.
Manafort agreed to cooperate with the government as part of his plea deal, and his case was quiet for the next two months. But in November, prosecutors filed a report revealing their bombshell allegation that Manafort had lied to investigators about a range of subjects after signing his plea deal. In later filings, prosecutors specifically accused Manafort of lying about trying to indirectly contact people working in the Trump administration; his communications with Kilimnik; Kilimnik's role in the obstruction conspiracy; a $125,000 payment related to a debt Manafort owed a law firm; and another DOJ investigation (many details were redacted in court papers).
At a sealed hearing on Feb. 4, special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told the judge that Manafort's meetings and communications with Kilimnik went "very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel's Office is investigating," given Manafort's position with Trump's campaign and the FBI's determination that Kilimnik had "a relationship with Russian intelligence." Parts of this section of the transcript are redacted, but Mueller's office was arguing that Manafort lied about when he'd met with Kilimnik, what they'd discussed, and how many times he'd discussed Ukrainian politics and other subjects — the details are redacted — with Kilimnik between 2016 and 2018.
"In 2016 there is an in-person meeting with someone who the Government has certainly proffered to this Court in the past, is understood by the FBI, assessed to be — have a relationship with Russian intelligence, that there is [REDACTED]. And there is an in-person meeting at an unusual time for somebody who is the campaign chairman to be spending time, and to be doing it in person," Weissmann said, according to the transcript. "That meeting and what happened at that meeting is of significance to the special counsel."
Manafort's lawyers denied that Manafort had intentionally lied. They argued that if Manafort did provide incorrect or contradictory information, it was not intentional — he was trying to recall information "as best he could," his lawyers wrote in a Feb. 13 filing — that he corrected himself when presented with evidence, and that prosecutors had misinterpreted some of the statements they'd highlighted as false.
Jackson heard arguments during the roughly four and a half hour sealed hearing on Feb. 4. A lightly redacted transcript was later released. During the hearing, Weissmann told the judge that the government didn't believe it had to meet the same standard as if it were formally filing criminal charges for the judge to find that Manafort lied. Weissmann argued that Manafort's alleged lies mattered because of the significance of the subject matter, how recently many of the events had taken place, the number of times he allegedly lied, and the fact that the underlying charges that Manafort was convicted of and pleaded guilty to involved giving false information.
"Just to make sure the Court understands, that does not mean that a cooperator can't understand and cooperate fully and be a successful cooperator and the incentives of the cooperation agreement can still work. But, it does mean that the Government should be, I think, extra vigilant to make sure and to test what it is that the defendant is saying," Weissmann said, according to the transcript.
Manafort's lawyer Richard Westling said Manafort faced "physical and emotional challenges" as he went through interviews with investigators and testified before the grand jury — his lawyers have said he's suffering from gout as well as the psychological toll of months of jail — and "did his best to answer the questions." Westling also argued there was no pattern in what prosecutors said Manafort lied about.
"There's no clear motive that would suggest someone who was trying to intentionally not share information," Westling said.