On October 30, a United States grand jury indicted Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chair, on twelve criminal charges, including conspiracy, money laundering, and failure to register as a foreign agent.
The charges, to which Manafort pleaded not guilty, arose from Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Beyond probing Russia’s actions, Mueller’s investigation has unveiled many interesting details about Manafort’s ties with Ukrainian and Russian politicians and oligarchs.
Hromadske spoke with Ukrainian reformist lawmaker and investigative journalist Serhiy Leschenko, who has been following Manafort since the mid-2000s, to understand what the US consultant has to do with Ukraine.
Manafort’s trail of corruption in Ukraine
Manafort’s history with Ukraine dates back over a decade, when he started working with politician Viktor Yanukovych in 2005. Yanukovych would later become Ukraine’s president and be ousted in the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. However, at the time, the politician had suffered a shameful defeat in re-run presidential elections, after a protest movement known as the Orange Revolution got the initial, falsified 2004 vote overturned.
According to Leshchenko, Manafort helped Yanukovych repair his damaged reputation outside Ukraine and worked on his four subsequent election campaigns (in 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2012), helping Yanukovych to first become prime minister and then president.
According to New York Times reports, Manafort’s work with the country’s pro-Russian politicians did not end even after the 2014 revolution, when Yanukovych fled Ukraine and numerous lawmakers from his Party of Regions left the party. After his client’s ouster, Manafort helped create the Opposition Bloc, the political offspring of the Party of Regions.
Throughout Manafort’s time in Ukraine, his work was characterized by a cunning, no-holds-barred approach to getting what he wanted.
“To achieve a successful result for his client, [Manafort] used very dirty political tricks,” Leshchenko said. “He used different sensitive topics to manipulate public opinion to divide the society between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking, to impose very sensitive issues on the political road map: language, religious issues, or integration towards the European Union.”
“This was done just to make his client the winner of the campaign, but it was very, very painful for Ukrainian society,” he added.
Moreover, according to The Times, Manafort allegedly helped to orchestrate anti-NATO, pro-Russian protests in Crimea as early as in 2006.
In fact, Leshchenko says that it was Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska’s idea to bring Manafort to Ukraine back in 2005.
Deripaska — one of Manafort’s previous clients — suggested to Ukrainian Donetsk-born oligarch and longtime Yanukovych ally Rinat Akhmetov that Manafort could be a good adviser “for Yanukovych to recover.”
In 2016, Leshchenko provided evidence from his investigation into the Party of Regions’ “black ledger” that Manafort had received at least $12.7 million in payments for his political consultant work in Ukraine.
However, under pressure from the FBI investigation, Manafort admitted to earning at least $17 million.
“It was an incredibly high amount of money and it looks like [it wasn’t] for political consulting because, even on this market, you cannot find such high salaries or fees for political consultants,” Leshchenko said.
According to the MP, the money did not even appear on the official records of the Party of Regions in Ukraine and the Ukrainian Central Election Commission. As a result, the way it was transferred is another matter to investigate, he believes.
“You can find the records of Party of Regions during this two-year period — as we discussed 2012, 2013 — and there is no payment for Manafort at all,” Leshchenko said.
“There is possibly money laundering or some possible way to take this money from abroad to the US and then to launder them through American real estate market, and so on… This is fraud. Frankly speaking, this is fraud, and that is why Manafort is under investigation in the US.”
The European Centre for a Modern Ukraine
When Yanukovych became president in 2010, he and his party kept Manafort on staff to help clean up the politician’s dingy reputation — particularly after he jailed his opponent from the 2010 election, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, on charges widely believed to be politicized.
“[T]he Party of Regions decided to hire a number of American lobbyists and law companies to launder the reputation of Yanukovych in the US and everywhere in the world and to protect him against the allegation that the prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko and [his] other opponents was politically motivated,” Leshchenko said.
This wasn’t done directly, but through a non-governmental organization called the European Centre for A Modern Ukraine, established by three lawmakers from the Party of Regions in Brussels.
Besides Manafort, the party hired Tony Podesta, the brother of Hillary Clinton campaign head, John Podesta. According to Leshchenko, European Centre for A Modern Ukraine hired the Podesta Group and Mercury consulting firms to help Yanukovych in the US.
“Of course, it was just a fake organization with a specific focus to help Yanukovych launder his reputation and his money in the US and everywhere in the world,” Leshchenko said.
According to The Associated Press, the NGO was also used to secretly route $2.2 million to U.S. lobbyists.
The European Centre of A Modern Ukraine also hired a New York-based law firm called Skadden-Arps to “launder the reputation of Yanukovych in the US in the case of Yulia Tymoshenko,” Leshchenko says.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Manafort’s daughter Andrea Manafort worked at Skadden-Arps between October 2012 and October 2016.
“It was done illegally, and more than $1 million of Ukrainian taxpayers’ [money was] paid to the account of Skadden-Arps, and Mr. Manafort was the guy who proposed to hire this law company because his daughter worked in that company at the time,” Leshchenko said. “As we know, the company Skadden paid back half a million dollars to Ukraine just to avoid any prosecution from the Ukrainian side and from American investigative agencies.”
“The [then-]Ukrainian government paid more than one million dollars on an illegal basis to hire this law company, and the Ukrainian Prosecutor's Office asked the FBI to interrogate Mr. Manafort and...Gregory Craig, head of this law company, former council of President Obama — but [as of today] there is no reply from the FBI,” he added.
What else to expect from the investigation
Leshchenko says that more details and more names will emerge from this investigation.
“I can confirm that Manafort was involved in some activity in the interests of [Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro] Firtash,” he said. “[Firtash] had strong relations with Semyon Mogilevich, one of the top ten FBI wanted persons. Mr. Firtash hired Manafort to protect him, to help him when he was arrested by order of the FBI in the year 2014.”
“Regarding the other individuals, I believe [the two people] who now don't feel comfortable [are] Mr. Akhmetov, who invited Manafort to Ukraine, and who, I believe, also paid him, and Mr. Lyovochkin” — the former head of presidential administration and current member of parliament, deputy head of the Opposition Bloc — “who was very close to Manafort when Yanukovych was president,” he added.
Leshchenko says that Ukraine is waiting for more evidence from the US to continue the investigation.
“We don't know how successful this investigation is going to be, but I believe the FBI should provide these documents to Ukraine as well because Ukraine was very cooperative with the Manafort case.”
This corruption has to be investigated, and the “bad guys” must be put in jail, he said.
/By Maria Romanenko