Manafort Indictment Sparks Hunt for Europeans Paid to Lobby - NBC New York
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Manafort Indictment Sparks Hunt for Europeans Paid to Lobby

U.S. law requires people who are lobbying U.S. officials on behalf of foreign governments or political parties to register

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    A new indictment against former Donald Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort focused a spotlight Saturday on uncovering the former European leaders who prosecutors contend were secretly paid by Manafort to lobby on behalf of Ukraine.

    The U.S. indictment handed up Friday by a grand jury doesn't name the European politicians who were paid, although it notes they worked in coordination with Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates and two Washington lobbying firms — the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs — to lobby U.S. officials and lawmakers.

    At least four leaders — former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko — were named last year in public filings by the two lobbying firms. The firms said the politicians were involved in U.S. speaking events and meetings with U.S. lawmakers and others to promote Manafort's client at the time, Ukraine's pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych.

    The filings did not disclose any payments to the former officials, and it's unclear if they are the same politicians referenced in the U.S. indictment.

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    U.S. law requires people who are lobbying U.S. officials on behalf of foreign governments or political parties to register, and a Justice Department database doesn't show that those former European officials did.

    But it's unclear from the U.S. indictment how much the former European politicians knew about their funding or if they could be covered by some legal exemption.

    The lobbying by the European political figures, identified in the indictment as the "Hapsburg Group," allegedly took place in 2012-13, when Ukraine was moving toward closer integration with the European Union. But the indictment doesn't formally charge any of the leaders or refer to them as co-conspirators of Manafort and Gates.

    The four politicians did not respond to requests Saturday from The Associated Press for comment but two issued strong denials.

    Gusenbauer told the Austrian national news agency APA that he never acted on Yanukovych's behalf.

    "I never undertook activities for Mr. Yanukovych" or his party, the news agency quoted Gusenbauer as saying. He said his interests in 2012 and 2013 were in bringing the nation of Ukraine closer to Europe.

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    "In public events in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, I advocated for the European Union concluding an association agreement with Ukraine," he said.

    The press office for Prodi, the former Italian premier and European Commission president, denied that he was ever involved or paid by a secret lobbying group.

    Prodi "never took part in any kind of secret activity, let alone in secret lobbying groups, nor has he ever received compensation for this kind of activity," said the statement, carried by the Italian news agency ANSA.

    The statement said "Prodi has long worked so that Ukraine's growing nearer to Europe can become concrete" and added that his activity "was public and thus easily traceable."

    Kwasniewski's assistant told the AP that he is out of the country and unavailable, but might speak next week.

    A Ukrainian lawmaker, meanwhile, told the AP on Saturday that a former Austrian chancellor was among the European politicians secretly paid to lobby for Ukraine.

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    Serhiy Leshchenko, who says he helped uncover off-the books payments from Yanukovych to Manafort, said he saw the information about a former Austrian chancellor in a ledger of payments to Manafort.

    "I don't remember the name, but I remember the position," Leshchenko said in an interview.

    Leshchenko noted that Gusenbauer had lobbied for Ukraine when Yanukovych was in power and said his activities clearly were in the interests of Yanukovych's Party of Regions.

    "I really believe that Paul Manafort could pay money to ousted European leaders to launder the reputation of Yanukovych in Europe, especially I mean Mr. Gusenbauer," Leshchenko said.

    "There were a number of events that took place in Europe with the engagement of Mr. Gusenbauer and other former European politicians to present Mr. Yanukovych in better lights in Europe," he said. "Mr. Prodi was engaged in this activity as well."

    In a statement, Mercury partner Mike McKeon said his firm was misled by Gates, who pleaded guilty Friday in the case, about the nature of the work.

    Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

    Gates "admitted that he didn't tell the truth to the government and didn't tell the truth to our lawyers when he spoke to them about this project," McKeon said.

    "While he and others involved with this matter may have acted criminally and tried to hide it, we have acted appropriately, following our counsel's advice from the start," he added.

    McKeon said the firm is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

    The EU integration issue eventually led to Yanukovych's downfall.

    He had been expected to sign an "association agreement" with the EU that would allow freer movement of goods between Ukraine and EU member countries. The agreement was seen as a step toward eventual EU membership, but Russia strongly opposed any tilt to the west by Ukraine.

    At the last minute, Yanukovych backed away from signing the EU agreement amid pressure from Russia, sparking a protest rally in Kiev in 2013. Police brutally dispersed the demonstrators, which galvanized opponents to call larger anti-government protests that developed into a huge, ramshackle village of tents and huts in the center of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

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    The protests persisted for months and descended into violence, which climaxed with the February 2014 shooting deaths of scores of people by still-unidentified snipers in Kiev. Faced with growing chaos, Yanukovych shortly fled Ukraine and ended up in Russia.