Judge Cracks a Penlight on Secrecy of Manafort-Gates Trial

WASHINGTON (CN) – Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates appeared in court Wednesday with the three attorneys who want off his high-profile case.

The reasons given by the attorneys for asking to withdraw remain secret, but court filings unsealed last week cited “irreconcilable differences,” and said the sealed information could be embarrassing and prejudicial to Gates.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson held a public status conference Monday to discuss the matter but closed the courtroom after 30 minutes to talk in secret with Gates and his attorneys, Shanlon Wu, Annemarie McAvoy and Walter Mack.

When they emerged after more than an hour, Wu said there had been no status change.

“We’re still on the case,” he said.

Alongside Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, 45-year-old Gates faces counts of conspiracy, money laundering and failure to register as a foreign agent for lobbying work on behalf of the Ukrainian government.

The two were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of Mueller’s investigation of possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered with the 2016 election to sway it in Trump’s favor.

During the open portion of Wednesday’s status conference, Jackson scolded Manafort and Gates for trying to keep too many of their court filings out of the public eye.

Saying she understands that some information and certain matters in the case need to remain secret temporarily, she noted that the public interest in the case “is not a reason to seal things.” Rather, “it’s a reason to unseal things,” she said.

“I think people are overdoing it just a little bit,” Jackson added.

Still, Jackson indicated that many of the issues that need to be resolved in the case at this point require some secrecy for now.

Among the other issues discussed openly Wednesday morning, Justice Department prosecutor Greg Andres told Jackson that the government will soon be done handing over discovery to Manafort and Gates.

They will make one final disclosure this week, Andres said, and after that will provide discovery materials on a rolling basis.

Kevin Downing, who represents Manafort, took issue with the rate at which the government is providing the materials.

“We are rather late in the game to still be getting discovery from the government,” Downing said.

On Feb. 2, Manafort had opposed the government’s request to delay adhering to a federal rule of evidence, 404(b), which requires the prosecution to inform defendants of all the crimes prosecutors want to introduce at trial.

The court had previously ordered the government to provide the notice by April 6, but prosecutors asked to delay complying with the 404(b) notice after Manafort and Gates asked for the trial to be pushed back from May to September.

Jackson did not issue a ruling Wednesday on whether the deadline could be pushed to eight weeks prior to the start of the trial — expressing some doubt about whether this would allow enough time to also prepare for the pretrial conference.

Jackson said she would eventually start ordering the government to comply with the 404(b) rule.

While no trial date is yet set, Jackson said during Wednesday’s status conference that she wants to set a date as soon as possible.

Noting that the court’s time and attention has been taken up with the minutiae of the case, such as bond conditions and whether Gates can attend his children’s soccer practice, Jackson reminded Manafort and Gates that the charges against them are serious.

Manafort attorney Downing declined to comment after the hearing. All parties are under a court order prohibiting them from talking to the media about the case.

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