The pro-Putin Ukrainian political party which hired Trump’s campaign manager may have also bankrolled a lobbying firm co-founded by Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager and a major Clinton bundler. The lobbying firm was hired by a Ukrainian non-profit organization with ties to pro-Putin president Viktor Yanukovych, and which allegedly received its funding from his political party. The group refuses to release its sources of funding.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press revealed the connection between Yanukovych and the Podesta Group, which was co-founded by John Pedestal (Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager) and current Chairman Tony Pedesta (a major Clinton fundraiser).
The AP focused on the Trump connection, opening with this revelation: “Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party’s efforts to influence U.S. policy.”
The connections between Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and the pro-Putin Yanukovych have been well reported, but the allegation that Yanukovych’s Party of Regions paid the Podesta Group, along with another Washington lobbying firm, is very new.
Both Manafort and Rick Gates, who also became a top Trump strategist, advised the Party of Regions during 2012. Gates also helped steer the advocacy work of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a pro-Yanukovych non-profit governed by a board which initially included parliament members from the Party of Regions. The non-profit paid $2.2 million to the Podesta Group and to Mercury LLC to lobby the White House and Congress for positions in line with Yanukovych’s government.
The European Centre paid the lobbying firms to downplay the necessity of a congressional resolution meant to pressure Yanukovych to release an imprisoned political rival, among other issues. The firms continued the work until shortly after the Ukrainian president fled the country in February 2014, during a popular revolt prompted by his government’s crackdown on protesters and his close ties to Russia.
Gates told the AP that he and Manafort introduced the European Centre to the lobbying firms and consulted with those firms on Ukrainian politics. The non-profit paid the Podesta Group $1.13 million between June 2012 and April 2014 to lobby Congress, the White House National Security Council, the State Department, and other federal agencies.
A former Podesta employee recalled an April 2012 meeting, where Gates allegedly said the non-profit served as a source of money that could not be traced to the Ukrainian politicians who were paying him and Manafort.
Current and former Podesta employees recalled disagreements within the firm over the arrangement, which at least one former employee considered obviously illegal. Tony Podesta told the AP the project was vetted by his firm’s counsel, and said he was unaware of such disagreements.
Podesta said his firm worked closely with the non-profit and Gates simultaneously, and insisted that Gates was not working for the Party of Regions and that Manafort was not involved at all.
“I was never given any reason to believe Rick was a Party of Regions consultant,” John Ward Anderson, a current Podesta employee, told the AP in a statement. “My assumption was that he was working for the Centre, as we were.”
Gates, however, insisted that he was working with Manafort and that both were working for the Party of Regions at the time.
The head of Mercury, Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who will not support Trump, said Manafort discussed the project with Podesta and him, in a conference call before the lobbying began.
Ina Kirsch, director of the European Centre, told the AP the non-profit never worked with Manafort or Gates and said the group hired the lobbyists on its own. She admitted she had met with Manafort twice but said neither Manafort nor Gates played a role in the lobbying activities. The non-profit has declined for years to reveal specific sources of its funding.
Next Page: Did Clinton’s fundraiser Tony Podesta break the law by not registering as a “foreign agent?”
A key undertone of the Associated Press story is the possible violation of U.S. federal law. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), U.S. lobbyists must declare publicly if they represent foreign leaders or their political parties. They must also provide detailed reports about their actions to the State Department, including: the home addresses of lobbyists; descriptions of all receipts, payments, and political contributions; and any lectures, emails, pamphlets, or press releases they create.
Lobbying records filed in the U.S. Senate, by contrast, are far less detailed. The Podesta Group and Mercury chose this option, rather than the more difficult foreign agents registration.
The AP uncovered a legal opinion drafted for Mercury in May 2012, which justified avoiding FARA. While the European Centre qualified as a “foreign principle” under FARA, disclosure to the Justice Department was not required, because the non-profit assured Mercury that “none of its activities was directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized by Ukraine’s government or any of the country’s political parties.”
Kimberley Fritts, the Podesta Group’s CEO, said the two lobbying firms had coordinated on the legal conclusion that disclosure to the Justice Department was unnecessary. “If counsel had determined FARA was the way to go, we would have gladly registered under FARA,” she told the AP. She added that the non-profit provided a signed statement affirming its independence from Ukraine’s government.
The Justice Department’s published guidelines describe foreign political parties as covered under the law. A violation of FARA is a felony and can result in up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $250,000.
Prosecutions under the law are generally rare, but former U.S. Congressman Mark Siljander (R—Mich.) pled guilty in 2010 to illegal lobbying under the law and obstruction of justice for his work with a charity in Khartoum, Sudan, which was suspected of funding international terrorism. Siljander served a one-year prison sentence.
The Podesta Group is not new to FARA or its required disclosures. Tony Podesta’s firm has previously registered its activities with the Justice Department involving lobbying for Albanaia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, India, Japan, Kenya, Kosovo, the Maldives, Moldova, Morocco, Somalia, South Korea, South Sudan, Vietnam, and others.
In April, the “Panama Papers” leak revealed that the Podesta Group was working for Sberbank, the Russian bank with close ties to Vladimir Putin’s government. The Ukrainian government has even accused this bank of perpetrating Russian aggression against its country.
Donald Trump’s campaign officials may have a corrupt backstory, but Hillary Clinton’s campaign is nowhere close to immune. It will be interesting to see if the Podesta Group is prosecuted under FARA, and how the mainstream media will find a way to cover such a case without revealing the Clinton connection.