ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – The FBI agent who searched a storage locker used by Paul Manafort testified Friday about the anxious moments that passed as he awaited the issuance of a search warrant and of the uncovered evidence that now forms a significant part of the criminal case against the former Trump campaign chairman.
The testimony of FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Pfeifer was the highlight of an extended motions hearing held before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in the federal court in Alexandria.
Ellis scheduled the hearing to deal with several motions filed by Manafort’s defense team that seek to nullify the charges against their client, including money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent . Among the issues they’ve raised is the legality of the May 27 search of the storage locker at a facility just off Duke Street in Alexandria.
Pfeifer told Judge Ellis he only became aware of the until after meeting with with reporters at the Associated Press who were conducting their own investigation into Manafort’s activities.
The agent said he met the reporters at the Justice Department, and that after the journalists revealed the existence of the storage locker, he immediately set off to investigate it for himself.
Several other agents and other Justice Department officials also attended the meeting, he said.
Pfeifer said upon arriving at the storage facility, he asked the manager on duty if he could review the lease, and after receiving permission to do so, he learned the individual leasing the locker was Alex Trusko, an assistant to Manafort.
Richard Gates, Manafort’s former business partner, was listed as the emergency contact.
Trusko was then called to the facility, and ultimately told Pfeifer that Manafort “moved records from his home, where he ran his business, to the storage locker”
“[Manafort] had a key to the unit but Trusko told me he hadn’t been there for at least a year … he doubted Manafort had ever visited the unit” Pfeifer said.
Without a search warrant during their meeting, Pfeifer could not comb through dozens of boxes and a filing cabinet in the unit. So, he told Ellis, he waited outside of the facility and surveilled who was coming and going for a full day as a federal judge in Virginia considered granting the warrant.
Pfeifer’s testimony was followed by a brief recess. Later Friday, the judge told attorneys they would continue and address several outstanding issues brought up by defense attorneys Kevin Downing and Thomas Zehnle.
In May, over eight separate filings, Downing argued leak-based media reports the media invalidated the indictment. This torrent of attention on his case effectively spoiled his client’s chances of a fair trial, Downing has argued.
Among the reports defense attorneys claimed hurt Manafort’s chances was an October 2017 NBC News story which suggested the FBI had already conducted a preliminary investigation into Manafort’s international business connections.
Downing has previously alleged former FBI directors James Comey and Andrew McCabe were responsible for leaking information to the press which made the disclosures not only harmful to Manafort’s trial, but patently “unlawful.”
Other reports appearing in the Associated Press in 2017 and on CNN in 2018, also discussed an impending plea deal by Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates.
These reports, Downing said in a motion hearing this past May, amounted to a “false narrative” created to give Mueller’s appointment legitimacy.
Judge Ellis tossed Manafort’s request to dismiss the indictment based on what defense attorneys argued was the “unauthorized” nature of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Though Ellis threw out the request, he said his conclusion shouldn’t be read as tacit approval of the process behind appointing Special Counsel to “prosecute cases of alleged high level misconduct.”
On Wednesday, Ellis granted Manafort’s request to skip the hearing and avoid a two hour commute from the jail.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presides over Manafort’s trial in Washington, D.C., revoked Manafort’s bond last month and ordered him to jail in Warsaw, Virginia. His bond was revoked after the federal judge aligned herself with allegations offered by another FBI agent monitoring Manafort since his indictment. The agent claimed Manafort tampered with a potential witness.
Pfeifer’s testimony was corroborated by information contained in a pair of recently unsealed, though redacted search warrants obtained for Manafort’s storage unit and his Virginia residence.
According to the warrants, the FBI uncovered tax returns – and more specifically, a $10 million loan reported on a 2010 tax form – connected to a company the former campaign chairman once controlled, but shared in part with his wife.
With help of the records found in the storage unit, prosecutors traced the $10 million loan back to Oleg Deripaska, a wealthy Russian aluminum industrialist. Deripaska is widely reported to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In emails obtained by the Washington Post last year, Manafort allegedly offered to give Deripaska “private briefings,” about the 2016 campaign by way of a third-party link, which court documents have suggested may be Konstantin Kilimnik, a political operative with ties to various Russian spy agencies. Kilimnik has denied the connections.
Deripaska also denied allegations Manafort ever offered the deal but according to testimony from an unidentified source found in the unsealed warrants, Manafort and Deripaska’s relationship helped Manafort keep money flowing into his lobbying work for Ukrainian political parties.
Manafort served as Trump’s chairman for less than six months but Mueller is diving into the lobbyist’s financial records dating back years. In the partially redacted search warrants provided by the FBI, it was also revealed that Manafort had a run in with money laundering issues before.
Manafort once objected to a freeze put on an account he held at First Republic Bank. The bank, the same used by Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen to make alleged hush money payments to Stormy Daniels; warned Manafort he was in violation of its “anti-money laundering policies.” The bank also warned Manafort it had “concerns about incoming international wires.”
One of the Cypriot banks Manafort used to receive payments for his consulting work had mysterious origins, according to his affidavit: Manafort told authorities it wasn’t clear to him who had opened the account. He said say, however, that the funds were “totally legal.”
His next statement conflicted with testimony given by Manafort’s former partner Rick Gates. In 2014, Gates told the FBI “various oligarchs” chipped in to keep the lobbying firm afloat. In Manafort’s affidavit, he denied any interaction “with oligarchs for business.”
In regard to the defense attorney’s request that a separate hearing be held to discuss the impact of media leaks, Ellis refused at first, but said that he may change his mind if Manafort’s legal team was able to bring together enough persuasive evidence by the end of next week.
“There are all manner of sanctions for leaks of materials and I’m prepared to impose them,” Ellis said. “But that doesn’t effect this trial. I’ll think about it. I do see them as serious breaches of security but they must meet all the necessary thresholds of burden and I haven’t seen that yet.”
In search of a remedy for the leaks, Manafort’s defense attorney Kevin Downing pressed the judge again but to no avail.
“I know what you want,” Ellis told Downing. “But tell me – what is the remedy?”
“Dismissal?” Downing asked, to some laughter in the court.
“Put that aside,” Ellis said.
“I’d like to deal with that for a moment,” Downing interrupted.
“No. Move on. This case is not being dismissed,” Ellis said as Downing interrupted again.
Ellis cut him off before asking: “Can you listen to what I’m saying to you? How can we remedy this?”
Downing told Ellis the most feasible remedy for now would be a change of venue, though he admitted he had not yet filed any motions to request it.
Like the hearing for the leaks, Ellis said he would grant the defense until next Friday to compile sufficient arguments that could justify changing the venue.
Ellis was also unenthusiastic about a request from prosecutors Friday: the original two week-long trial time suggested during Manafort’s arraignment last year, should be extended to three weeks, prosecutor Uzo Asonye said.
“This is a bank and tax fraud case,” Ellis said. “I can’t remember a case like this that has lasted that long. You better work on that too,” he said. “I liked your original estimate better, though I thought that was excessive too.”
The trial in Virginia begins July 25.