The term “oligarchs” may well be added to the growing list of banned words list at the tax evasion and bank fraud trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
As the second day of Manafort’s trial got underway Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III indicated he was worried that referring to the businessmen who funded Manafort’s political work in Ukraine as “oligarchs” had the tendency to suggest that the defendant was engaged in shady and unsavory work.
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“We’re not going to have a case tried that he associated with despicable people and, therefore, he’s despicable,” the judge declared during an exchange before jurors were brought into the courtroom. “That’s not the American way.”
“Oligarchy is just despotic power exercised by a privileged few,” Ellis observed. “Principals of high schools are oligarchs in that sense. What I want to avoid … is how you use the term oligarch to mean he was consulting and being paid by people [who] are criminals. Of course, there will be no evidence about that.”
Ellis said that if the term simply meant a wealthy person, it might not be objectionable. “Well, Mr. Soros would be an oligarch by that definition, and so would Mr. Koch, but we wouldn’t call them that,” the judge said, referring to politically active American billionaires George Soros and, apparently, to either Charles or David Koch, or perhaps both.
“The word ‘oligarch’ has come to have a pejorative meaning about which there will be no evidence in this trial,” the judge said.
Prosecutor Greg Andres rose to object to the government being prevented from using the term.
“We don’t call American businessmen oligarchs. Ukrainian businessmen are referred to as oligarchs. Those are the facts,” Andres said.
Ellis interrupted to disagree. “Those are not the facts of this case,” he snapped, saying that any witnesses using the term would be offering an opinion.
Prosecutors used the term repeatedly in opening statements Tuesday, saying that a number of Ukrainian oligarchs paid a total of more than $60 million to back Manafort’s work in Ukraine on behalf of President Viktor Yanukovuch and his Party of Regions.
The judge ultimately agreed to allow the prosecution to submit a brief on the issue, including the question of whether some of the many documents being admitted into evidence in the case may contain the term and how to handle that.
Prosecutor floats idea Rick Gates won’t be called
A prosecutor caused a scramble in the courtroom just after noon Wednesday by suggesting that Rick Gates, the longtime Manafort protege who took a plea deal and is often billed as the government’s star witness, might not take the stand at all.
However, the move appeared to be not so much a blockbuster reveal as a feint aimed at getting more leeway from the judge to admit into court proceedings financial documents the FBI seized from Manafort’s condo last year.
As prosecutor Uzo Asonye was questioning an FBI agent about a 2013 document Gates wrote relating to several tax issues, the judge asked why the government was having the agent discuss the contents of the memo rather than questioning the apparent author when he takes the stand.
“You’re going to offer Mr. Gates, aren’t you?” Ellis asked, clearly trying to move the tedious questioning along.
“He may testify in this case, your honor, he may not,” Asonye said.
The statement prompted more than a dozen reporters to leave their seats in the gallery and head for the door.,
“That was news to me and, obviously about 27” others in the courtroom, the judge said to laughter from various quarters including some jury members.
Asonye quickly backpedaled, insisting he was simply observing that the prosecution constantly assesses its case to decide how to proceed.
“As the evidence comes in, we constantly evaluate whether or not” to call a witness, the prosecutor said. “That applies to every witness, not only Mr. Gates.”
Ellis wasn’t buying it. “The fact of the matter is you know who you are going to call,” the judge shot back. “If you are going to call Mr. Gates, this is a waste of time.”
Mueller’s team did reveal their afternoon witnesses during the morning proceedings. They will include include Maximillian Katzman, a business partner to one of Manafort’s lawyers; Daniel Opsut, a comptroller from Mercedes Benz in Alexandria; and Ronald Wall, whose identity isn’t yet clear.
FBI agent details Manafort condo raid
The FBI knocked three times on Manafort’s door without getting an answer before its early morning raid last summer on his Alexandria, Virginia condominium, one of the lead agents who conducted the search testified Wednesday morning.
Matthew Mikuska, an 11-year FBI veteran and special agent, explained that the agents announced themselves and their search warrant but didn’t get an answer. Ultimately, they entered Manafort’s unit shortly after 6 a.m. with a key they’d already obtained. Mikuska, who said he works on counterintelligence issues, said he did not know how the FBI got the key.
Manafort, meanwhile, sat in the courtroom Wednesday morning at the defense table dressed again in a dark suit. He smiled at his wife, Kathleen and a small entourage of supporters, who were seated in the front row behind his attorneys. During the questioning, Manafort took notes on a yellow notepad and frequently whispered to one of his defense lawyers sitting next to him, Kevin Downing.
Mueller’s prosecutors made Mikuska their third government witness in the Manafort trial and asked him to walk the jury through how the FBI got into the longtime GOP operative’s apartment building in Northern Virginia, as well as more than 20 pieces of evidence they seized from the three bedroom, 2,000 square-foot unit.
Mikuska testified that the FBI had obtained a key fob — he didn’t know where it came from — that gave them access to Manafort’s building via an underground parking garage. They then took one set of elevators up to the lobby and rode in another set of elevators to Manafort’s unit on the fourth floor.
During cross examination, Mikuska said the FBI team of about 14 agents and other bureau officials were armed, with some wearing jeans or khakis and FBI-labeled coats or vests. Manafort’s lawyer, Richard Westling, tried to ask whether the FBI agents were wearing bullet proof vests, but Ellis sustained an objection from Asonye that the question wasn’t relevant.
Manafort didn’t answer the door when the FBI agents announced themselves, but Mikuska said the defendant was walking toward the FBI team as it entered the unit. Manafort’s wife was also present, the agent testified, adding that Manafort did not appear to be mnaking an effort to hide anything as federal agents came into the apartment.
Mikuska added that he was not working on Mueller’s wider Russia investigation prior to the raid.
Among the documents the FBI seized: signed applications for several bank loans at the center of the government’s bank fraud case against Manafort, as well as wire transfers indicating movement of several million dollars and invoices for home improvement work on Manafort-owned properties on Long Island, in New York, and in Palm Beach, Florida.
All of the documents were added to the court record and are expected to be made public later Wednesday.
Ellis called a mid-morning recess, interrupting Mikuska’s testimony after about 30 minutes. But the questioning resumed after a brief intermission. Headed into the lunch break, Ellis again joked to the jurors about the delights of the court’s menu.
“I hope your pheasant under glass will be delivered,” the judge said.
Admaker takes the stand
After the dust-up over language, the first prosecution witness for the day took the stand early Wednesday: admaker Daniel Rabin, who described his work with Manafort producing TV spots for Ukrainian political campaign.
“He demanded a lot of the people who worked for him. Paul was thorough. He was strategic. He always worked for the best of the campaign. He ran a very good campaign,” Rabin said.
Ellis limited prosecutors further during Rabin’s appearance, balking at efforts to introduce three photos showing Manafort with Yanukovych. The judge agreed to allow only one into evidence, suggesting that he didn’t want too much evidence showing how Manafort rubbed shoulders with the very powerful.
While the judge allowed one of the photos to be admitted, when Andres asked to actually show it to the jury, the judge said tersely: “No.” So Andres moved on.
Rabin said another key player in the group’s work in Ukraine was Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian-Russian citizen who took ads written in English and translated them into conversational Ukrainian.
The name of one oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, was also raised by Andres Wednesday. Rabin called Akhmetov “someone of wealth” in Ukraine and said he’d met him, perhaps in connection with a campaign Akhmetov mounted for Ukraine’s parliament.
Defense lawyer Richard Westling asked Rabin if he’d done well financially in the dealings with Manafort. “Were you paid well for your work?” the lawyer inquired.
“It depends on who you ask,” Rabin replied, estimating that the payments were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Westling also again raised the notion that political consulting work overseas often bridges the U.S. ideological divide. While cautioning the Democratic consultant not to say if he worked for Democrats or Republicans in the U.S., the defense attorney asked: “In cases of international consulting, these side gets melded?”
“Well, there’s no Democrats and Republicans anywhere but the U.S.,” Rabin replied.
While federal authorities began investigating Manafort around 2014 and stepped up that scrutiny in the last couple of years, Rabin said he’d only been contacted by prosecutors for the first time about two months ago.