Federal judge finds Paul Manafort lied to Mueller probe about contacts with Russian aide

Washington • Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied to prosecutors with special counsel Robert Mueller III about matters close to the heart of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The judge’s finding that Manafort, 69, breached his cooperation deal with prosecutors by lying after his guilty plea could add years to his prison sentence and came after a set of sealed court hearings.

Manafort’s lies, the judge found, included “his interactions and communications with [Konstantin] Kilimnik,” a longtime aide whom the FBI assessed to have ties to Russian intelligence.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the District of Columbia said Manafort also lied to the special counsel, the FBI and the grand jury about a payment from a company to a law firm — which he previously characterized as a loan repayment — and made false statements that were material to another Justice Department investigation whose focus has not been described in public filings in Manafort’s case.

Manafort’s actions mean Mueller’s office “is no longer bound” by the plea agreement including prosecutors’ promise to support a possible sentencing reduction for Manafort accepting responsibility for his crimes.

Jackson said she would factor in his deception at sentencing March 13 and will make public her reasoning about her findings as early as Friday in another filing.

Manafort had denied intentionally lying after his plea deal and through his attorneys attributed any conflicting statements to confusion or faulty recollection.

Manafort pleaded guilty Sept. 14, on the eve of jury selection for his trial in Washington, to conspiring to defraud the United States, violate lobbying laws and obstruct justice — by witness tampering — in connection with years of undisclosed work in Ukraine for a pro-Russian political party and Ukrainian politician, Viktor Yanukovych. He also was convicted by a jury in August for bank- and tax-fraud crimes in a separate federal case in Virginia.

Jackson has said previously that she would consider whether to order Manafort to serve penalties in the two cases consecutively. Legal experts say Manafort faces a possible seven-to-10-year sentence in his related Virginia federal case, which U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III postponed this month to await Jackson's ruling. Manafort faces up to 10 years in his District case.

Mueller prosecutors have said Manafort's lies about the frequency and substance of his contacts with Kilimnik go "very much to the heart of what the special counsel's office is investigating."

They highlighted Manafort's shifting account of an August 2016 meeting in New York City with Kilimnik — a longtime aide who also has been indicted in the Mueller investigation — in which the pair discussed a peace plan for Ukraine, while Manafort served as Trump's campaign chairman.

A resolution of hostilities in Ukraine that led to the lifting of sanctions against Russia is a top Kremlin foreign policy goal.

Mueller's office also claims Manafort "intentionally provided false information" in debriefing sessions on several topics, including the extent and substance of his interactions with Kilimnik.

The pair met in December 2016, in January 2017 when Kilimnik was in Washington and again in February 2017, and as recently as the winter of 2018, according to previously released court documents.

Prosecutors also said that Manafort passed polling data related to the presidential campaign to Kilimnik during the campaign and that the two worked on a poll in Ukraine in 2018.

Jackson issued her order after a hearing Wednesday that was held under seal to permit both sides to discuss matters under investigation and people who are not charged.

In her order, the judge agreed with Manafort's defense and said the government had failed to show he lied when he denied having ongoing contact with Trump administration officials since they took office in January 2017 and failed to show he lied about Kilimnik's role in the obstruction of justice conspiracy over witness tampering in which Kilimnik was accused and Manafort pleaded guilty.

In the deal with prosecutors, Manafort agreed to cooperate "fully and truthfully" with the government, seemingly giving investigators access to a witness who was at key events relevant to the Russia investigation — a Trump Tower meeting attended by a Russian lawyer, the Republican National Convention and a host of other behind-the-scenes discussions in the spring and summer of 2016.

Instead, the deal collapsed, with prosecutors withdrawing any offer of a recommendation for leniency and accusing Manafort in late November of lying repeatedly to them.

Manafort has been jailed just outside Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia, since June.

Jackson's terse order did not add to what was previously known about the Aug. 2, 2016, meeting at the Grand Havana Room, an upscale cigar bar in Manhattan, between Manafort and Kilimnik.

Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said in a previous court hearing that the meeting included Rick Gates, Manafort's top deputy on the Trump campaign and in Ukraine who also has pleaded guilty in the Mueller investigation, and that Gates said the men left separately using different exits than Kilimnik.

Kilimnik has said to The Washington Post that he and Manafort discussed "unpaid bills" and "current news" at the meeting and that the sessions were "private visits" that were "in no way related to politics or the presidential campaign in the U.S."

In 2017, Kilimnik denied to The Post having connections to Russian intelligence. He is believed to be in Moscow.

The order marked the latest instance in which Manafort was found to have flouted the court's directions.

Shortly after his indictment in late 2017 — with a gag order in place in his case — Jackson scolded Manafort for helping ghostwrite an op-ed article for a newspaper in Ukraine defending his work there. In July, Jackson revoked Manafort’s bail and ordered him jailed after prosecutors charged him with tampering with witnesses while he had been free pending trial, a crime to which he later pleaded guilty.