Politico

Rick Gates says he told Vin Weber and Tony Podesta that Ukraine controlled think tank

Rick Gates, President Donald Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman, testified on Thursday that he personally told two lobbyists hired by Paul Manafort that a think tank they were representing was actually a front for the government of Ukraine.

During questioning at the ongoing trial of Greg Craig, the former Obama White House counsel, Gates said the lobbyists, Tony Podesta and former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), knew that the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine was controlled by Ukraine. Such ties would have required Podesta, Weber and their lobbying firms to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act and disclose contracts and payments related to the work.

“Did you lie to Mr. Podesta himself?” asked Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez, a lawyer for the government.

“I did not,” Gates replied.

“Did you lie to Mr. Weber himself?” the prosecutor inquired.

“I did not,” Gates said.

“Did you tell them who the client actually was?” Campoamor-Sanchez asked.

“Yes,” Gates said.

“And who was the client?” the prosecutor asked.

“The government of Ukraine,” Gates replied.

Gates’ testimony is the latest indication that Mercury Public Affairs and the Podesta Group knew they were working for the Ukrainian government, even though their ostensible client was the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.

Some staffers from Mercury and the Podesta Group “understood that they were receiving direction from [Manafort and Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych, not the Centre,” according to a statement of facts laid out by special counsel Robert Mueller that Manafort — the former Trump campaign chairman and Gates’ boss — acknowledged as true as part of his plea deal with the government.

Manafort, Gates and Mercury and Podesta Group staffers “referred to the client in ways that made clear they knew it was Ukraine, for instance noting that the ‘client’ had an Embassy in Washington D.C.,” according to the statement. Tony Podesta, identified as “the head of Company B” in the court filing, “told his team to think the President of Ukraine ‘is the client.’”

Gates also told Mercury that it would be “representing the Government of Ukraine” in Washington, according to a Feb. 21, 2012, email obtained by Mueller and mentioned in a court filing related to Gates’ guilty pleas last year to conspiracy and false-statement charges.

Mercury and the Podesta Group registered to lobby for the think tank at the time but failed to register as foreign agents, which is required by law for lobbying done on behalf of foreign governments or political parties. Both firms retroactively registered for the work in 2017, once Manafort was under investigation and years after the work had concluded.

Mercury has said it didn’t register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act on the advice of its lawyers. Gates admitted to lying to Mercury’s law firm as part of the plea deal he struck with Mueller last year.

Bob Trout, a lawyer for Weber, said Gates’ testimony on Thursday wasn’t accurate.

“By his own description, Rick Gates is a serial liar and a convicted liar at that,” Trout said in a statement to POLITICO. “He has admitted to lying to Mr. Weber and Mr. Weber’s lawyer when the lawyer was assessing whether FARA registration was required, and the lawyer then recommended that FARA registration was not required. During Vin Weber’s work for the ECFMU, Rick Gates never told Mr. Weber that the real client was the government of Ukraine.”

Trout didn’t address whether Gates had told Weber the client would be the Ukrainian government before the work began. But he said the “only client Mr. Weber ever thought he was working for was the ECFMU.”

Mercury has said it didn’t register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act on the advice of their lawyers. Gates admitted to lying to Mercury’s law firm as part of the plea deal he struck with Mueller.

The Podesta Group collapsed in 2017 after Manafort was arrested and charged with various crimes, including failing to register as a foreign agent. Tony Podesta didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mueller decided that potential wrongdoing by Mercury and the Podesta Group was beyond his remit and referred the investigation to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, who haven’t brought charges yet.

Neither Weber nor Tony Podesta is on the government’s witness list for the current trial, where Craig is charged with misleading the Justice Department about his dealings with the media in connection with a 2012 report on the prosecution of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine.

But a former Mercury staffer, Lucy-Claire Saunders, testified briefly at the trial on Wednesday.

“At some point, we started to realize that it was not what it seemed,” Saunders, who left Mercury in 2015, said of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.

“We were told it was a nonprofit or nongovernmental organization,” she said. “Later, we came to believe that potentially it was funded by businessmen in Ukraine with close relationships to the government.”

Asked who told her the group was a nonprofit, Saunders said it was Gates.

Campoamor-Sanchez’s questioning of Gates seemed to be aimed a clearing up comments he’d made earlier in the day suggesting that Mercury and Podesta might have been in the dark about who was behind the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. Gates had told one of Craig’s lawyers, Paula Junghans, that the think tank was connected to a high-ranking figure in Ukraine’s government.

“He served a role in the government,” Gates, a prosecution witness, said during cross-examination. “It was not a direct arm of the entire government.”

Gates did not name the man behind the think tank, but the filing about Gates’ plea deal names him as Andriy Klyuyev, Ukraine’s first vice prime minister.

The group “was associated with the Ukrainian government. It was not an independent nonprofit organization, right?” Junghans asked.

“Yes, that’s correct,” Gates said.

Junghans also asked whether Gates had misled Mercury and Podesta about the think tank.

“You lied to them?” she said.

“I did,” Gates said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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