WASHINGTON (CN) — High-profile Washington lawyer Greg Craig hugged his defense team with tears in his eyes Wednesday after a federal jury found him not guilty in a politically charged trial spun off the special counsel’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election.
The acquittal came just five hours into deliberations at the close of a three-week, document-heavy trial where 74-year-old Craig was accused of lying to the Justice Department in 2013 about work he did for the Ukrainian government while he was a partner at Skadden Arps.
Defense lawyers had urged the jury one day earlier to stop the government from “sounding a horrible false note” at the end of Craig’s 50-year career as a reputable Washington attorney who served under two presidential administration.
When the Ukrainian government retained Skadden Arps in 2012, the country was embroiled in controversy over its prosecution of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Skadden Arps was purportedly hired to study whether Tymoshenko’s trial adhered to Western standard of justice, but prosecutors claimed Craig performed lobbying work that would otherwise trigger Foreign Agent Registration Act requirements.
Ukraine’s president in those days, Viktor Yanukovych, belonged to the pro-Kremlin Party of Regions, which was secretly paying future Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort millions of dollars to boost the government’s perception in the United States.
Though the U.S. State Department determined that Tymoshenko’s prosecution was politically motivated, Craig’s ultimate report for Skadden was widely criticized for not coming down on Ukraine as strongly.
Insisting that his work was pure rule-of-law consulting, Craig took to the witness stand last month in his 14-day trial. Prosecutors had accused the lawyer of trying to sway how journalists reported on the Skadden report, but Craig testified that his real intent was to counteract pressure and misrepresentations from Ukrainian government publicists.
After the verdict was read, juror Michael Meyer said in an interview that several members of the jury were “very disturbed” by Craig’s behavior and did not believe the defendant was “entirely forthright” in representing his dealings with Ukraine.
“But there were a number of jurors, several of the older jurors, who understand that life is a complicated thing,” said Meyer, a 60-year-old government contractor.
Craig stepped down from Skadden Arps after the probe by former special counsel Robert Mueller uncovered Ukraine-Manafort ties. Standing before the jury Wednesday, the lawyer let out a sigh as the verdict was read. “Two little words, nine little letters,” Craig’s attorney William Murphy said as he walked out of the courtroom.
Skadden Arps reached a settlement to related lobbying charges earlier this year, but Craig himself was not charged with failing to register under FARA because the window had lapsed under the statute of limitations.
Rather, Craig was charged with lying to the Justice Department to avoid FARA requirements. The government argued that Craig made eight key omissions in his FARA responses, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough saying Craig knew how to “craft the answers,” given his experience as a “gifted lawyer.”
Prosecutors relied heavily on a trove of email evidence, including messages where Craig instructed Skadden associates ahead of contracting with the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice to research the FARA guardrails. Others emails showed Craig making repeated contact with New York Times reporter David Sanger and journalists with two other U.S. news outlets.
Before deliberations began Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson instructed the jury that a conviction required them to find that Craig’s responses to FARA omitted material facts that rendered the “answers false and misleading in their absence.”
Meyer, the juror, said the panel could not convict Craig under the narrow window set by the applicable statute of limitations — Oct. 3, 2013, to Jan. 16, 2014.
“There was no question in the room that he hadn’t done anything during that period that warranted a finding of guilty,” Meyer said.
Exiting the courthouse in Washington with Craig standing beside him, defense attorney William Taylor said that the Justice Department was wrong to ever bring the case.
“Why after the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York rejected this prosecution, did this Department of Justice decide it had to hound this man and his family without any evidence and without any purpose?” asked Taylor.
Judge Jackson, who by random assignment has presided over many high-profile criminal proceedings arising from the Mueller investigation — including the Rick Gates, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone cases — commended both the defense and prosecution before the jury entered deliberations.
“It’s very intense for everybody emotionally,” Jackson said before adding that both parties acted professionally throughout the “extremely long experience.”
Meyers, who during the jury-selection process admitted to holding contempt for Paul Manafort, told reporters Wednesday that the jurors did not take issue with Manafort’s involvement in the Skadden investigation and did not opine one way or another on the testimony of Rick Gates, later deputy to Manafort on the Trump campaign.
Meyers added that he personally was “deeply offended” that the government invested extensive resources into prosecuting Craig when there were more important convictions related to Russia.
“There’s this line in scripture about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel,” Meyer said. “I just thought about this over and over again, about straining at a gnat. Because this was a gnat. And yet everything else that’s gone on was a gigantic camel.”