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Judge denies Manafort's request to move next trial from DC to Virginia

Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson has denied a request by Paul Manafort to move his second criminal trial fro...

Posted: Sep 6, 2018 9:43 AM
Updated: Sep 6, 2018 9:43 AM

Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson has denied a request by Paul Manafort to move his second criminal trial from Washington, DC, to Roanoke, Virginia, as she, the special counsel's office and Manafort's attorneys hash out last-minute parameters before the trial begins later this month.

Manafort's defense team had expressed concern that the jurors would be biased because of the political engagement and familiarity of news coverage of people living in the area.

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But Jackson ruled that they didn't give enough reason why impartial jurors couldn't be found. The jury selection process started Tuesday, when more than 120 potential jurors visited the courthouse to fill out a 50-question form about their personal backgrounds and experiences. In two weeks, the lawyers and judge will interview some of those potential jurors individually before they choose 12 people and three alternates.

Manafort also had unsuccessfully tried to move his previous criminal trial in Virginia, where a jury determined he was guilty of eight charges, to Roanoke.

During the hearing Wednesday at US District court in DC, the legal teams for the special counsel's office and Manafort provided a great deal of detail about what's to come in the trial later this month, including the witnesses they may call. They met with the judge overseeing the foreign lobbying and money laundering criminal case for about two hours Wednesday.

Manafort did not attend the hearing.

Manafort's plan

The defense team said it might call to the stand FBI agents who worked on the Manafort investigation. The agents would be able to testify about whether the investigation ended before the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel, and whether Manafort was "targeted" by him, defense attorney Kevin Downing said.

Manafort's lawyers said they'd like shape their arguments around the idea that the special counsel's office prosecuted Manafort unfairly and because of political motivations. "Paul Manafort is here because he's Trump's campaign manager," Downing argued Wednesday. "We are seeing that other entities at other firms have not been prosecuted," Downing added, citing other lobbyists who were "treated differently than Mr. Manafort."

The special counsel's prosecutors say this isn't correct, because the Manafort investigation began before Mueller's appointment and, even so, the idea shouldn't factor into whether Manafort is guilty of the crimes.

The judge responded that, at least for now, she agrees.

"You don't get to argue to the jury the argument you've made to the press and now to me," she said to Downing, pointing to statements he made months ago that prompted Jackson to put a gag order on the lawyers in the case.

At Manafort's last trial, the defense team hinted to the jury that the special counsel's office wouldn't have brought a case against him if he hadn't been President Donald Trump's campaign chairman. They did not call any witnesses to testify on Manafort's behalf at that trial.

The defense team on Wednesday said they also may call an expert witness to speak about money laundering and international banking.

Prosecution's case

Overall, prosecutors' statements at the hearing Wednesday pointed to how they plan to revisit the foreign banking disclosure accusations they described at the last trial. Some witnesses they call may retread the prosecutors' case presented in the Virginia court, with a few tweaks.

They appear poised to bring back to the witness stand accountants from the firm Manafort used and his former bookkeeper Heather Washkuhn, according to the defense team and prosecutors at the hearing. The prosecutors also plan to revisit the testimony of some vendors from which Manafort bought luxury goods and services, said Andrew Weissmann, a prosecutor on Mueller's team, though the prosecutors acknowledged that that portion of the trial will be much more limited than in Virginia, where custom animal-skin jackets and Hamptons flower bed landscaping became notorious parts of the financial fraud case.

Because the case in DC deals with lobbying violations themselves -- and not just financial decisions related to the lobbying work -- prosecutors have told the defense team they may call several lobbyists to testify, the defense team said in court. That includes individuals related to the law firm Skadden Arps -- meaning a former White House counsel could be on the witness list -- and the lobbying firms Podesta Group, Mercury, Edelman and FTI. A witness list is not yet available for the case.

The prosecutors will present a case in DC that's more in-depth than at the last trial. They hope to use thousands of documents -- rather than a few hundred -- as evidence in their case. They plan to explain more about Manafort's lobbying activities for Ukrainian politicians in the US, such as the 2012 attempt by Manafort to defeat a congressional resolution condemning former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych for the imprisonment of political rival Yulia Tymoshenko, Weissmann said in court.

Jackson has not yet decided whether the prosecutors can call a foreign lobbying filings attorney, Melissa Laurenza from the law firm Akin Gump, to testify against her client Manafort. Another judge in the DC federal court previously ordered Laurenza to provide information to prosecutors as they prepared the grand jury indictment against Manafort and Rick Gates.

Gates back to the stand?

Jackson asked the prosecutors directly on Wednesday: Will longtime Manafort deputy Gates testify again?

"We do not know yet," Weissmann said in court.

Whether Gates does and what both legal teams can ask him is a major issue Jackson is weighing before the trial.

Jackson told the defense team on Wednesday they will not be able to ask Gates about his "secret life," meaning extramarital affairs, as they did in the Virginia trial. And she told the prosecutors to tell him he won't have to volunteer information about his affairs. "I do not believe it's relevant to his credibility," Jackson said Wednesday.

Under oath in the Virginia courtroom, Gates admitted to having a mistress in London and embezzling from Manafort. Following the trial, one juror said the jury found Gates to be so untrustworthy that they set aside his testimony entirely when considering Manafort's guilt. The defense team at the Virginia trial had tried to pin many of Manafort's fraudulent activities on Gates. The jury was unable to reach a decision on 10 banking charges in the Virginia case.

Another issue is how the defense may suggest Gates has worked with the special counsel's office. Both legal teams will be unable at the DC trial to allude to the ongoing investigation into Russia collusion, an investigation where Gates is still helping. And the defense team can't ask Gates about the substance of his conversations with Mueller, the judge said.

At the hearing Wednesday, the prosecutors made clear a broader investigation continues.

"There are many aspects to the meetings [between prosecutors and Gates] that were not part of the case before your honor," Weissmann said in court Wednesday.

The attorneys involved in Manafort's case will be back in court September 12 to discuss more legal questions before the trial.

Another boost for prosecution

Jackson gave the prosecutors one more boost in ruling they can show the jury evidence that Manafort's two political consulting companies, Davis Manafort Partners and DMP International, never filed foreign bank account disclosures with the Treasury Department.

This point could be crucial as prosecutors build their case that Manafort hid his foreign lobbying work for Ukrainian politicians and conspired to launder the proceeds from the work. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Jackson's ruling might clear up a part of the prosecution's case that was confusing when they presented it to the jury in Virginia.

At the Virginia trial, the defense team had asked a witness from the Treasury Department's financial fraud division about the responsibility of a person to file disclosures for a company they co-own. The defense planted enough doubt that Manafort may not have been responsible for his company's foreign banking disclosures that prosecutors fought to bring the witness, Paula Liss, back to the stand at the end of the trial to ask her three more questions. The judge in the Virginia case also emphasized to the jury how a company could be charged in an indictment -- but was not in this one.

It's not known if this was the issue that caused the Virginia jury to hang on 10 counts, including three accusations that Manafort failed to file foreign banking disclosures in 2011, 2013 and 2014. The jurors did find him guilty of failing to file foreign banking disclosures in 2012, among other fraud convictions they agreed on.

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