Manafort Fizzles With Challenge to Storage-Unit Search

President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort arrives at the federal courthouse, on Feb. 28, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorneys for Paul Manafort faced an uphill battle Wednesday in trying to argue that the government conducted an unconstitutional search on the former Trump campaign manager’s storage unit.

As reflected on the lease itself, Manafort employee Alexander Trusko was listed as the occupant of the storage locker in Alexandria, Virginia, and the government says it entered the unit with the occupant’s permission, nearly one year ago to the day.

The employee also had a key, and U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson prodded Manafort attorney Thomas Zehnle during a nearly three-hour hearing Wednesday as to how they can claim that the employee did not have the authority to admit investigators.

On May 27, a day after agents first entered the unit, they executed search warrant that empowered them to seized business records Manafort stored there.

“Where’s the evidence that makes it unreasonable,” Jackson asked. “Where’s the evidence that Mr. Manafort was exerting control of this space?”

Zehnle emphasized meanwhile that the Manafort employee told the agent he acted only at Manafort’s direction.

“That in and of itself, your honor, should put a reasonably cautious FBI agent on notice that there is something potentially ambiguous about whether or not this person has actual or common authority,” Zehnle said.

Jackson appeared skeptical.

“What was ambiguous to them about that situation?” Jackson responded.

At the time of the search Trusko worked at the Manafort company Steam Mountain LLC. Previously he worked at Davis Manafort Partners.

Judge Jackson had ordered previously that the federal agent who signed the affidavit for the search of the storage unit must appear in court Wednesday. The agent did not testify, however, at the hearing.

Defense attorneys told Jackson they were willing to proceed without the ability to question him at this stage.

According to the special counsel’s office, the records seized contained evidence leading to Manafort’s indictment in Washington for money laundering, making false statements and failing to register as a foreign agent for work he did on behalf of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller brought the charges as part of his wide-ranging probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Manafort faces a second set of charges from Mueller for bank and tax fraud in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Justice Department attorney Scott Meisler argued Wednesday that the FBI already had enough evidence, without a description of what the agent saw on May 26, to establish probable cause that evidence of the alleged offenses would be found there.

Zehnle challenged that assertion Wednesday.

“If they had probable cause as they allege, why wouldn’t they have simply done it on the 26th,” he asked. “That’s not a credible explanation.”

Jackson also debated on Wednesday Manafort’s motion for a bill of particulars, or detailed list of evidence in the case, but Justice Department attorney Gregg Andres argued that Manafort already has all the information he needs to form his defense.

Jackson noted the detail of the indictment but defense attorney Zehnle said Manafort needs to see statements from a lawyer who advised him on the Foreign Agent Registration Act filings.

Andres revealed Wednesday that the Akin Gump attorney, Melissa Laurenza, will be called to testify during trial about the statements she received from Manafort and his longtime business associate Rick Gates, which she communicated to the Justice Department. Gates has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Andres confirmed that Laurenza is not considered a co-conspirator in the case, though she was compelled to testify before a grand jury in Washington by Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell.

Manafort’s attorney Richard Westling also argued Wednesday that the government’s search of Manafort’s Alexandria condominium violated his constitutional rights because it was overly broad, and allowed virtually every financial record to be seized.

The bulk of Westling’s argument revolved around whether the government should have to return records contained on imaged copies of Manafort’s electronic devices that are unrelated to the investigation.

Prosecutor Meisler however said this was the first time the defense has suggested the government has a duty to destroy imaged copies of Manafort’s devices.

Wednesday’s hearing came as President Trump again took to Twitter to decry the special counsel’s investigation as a witch hunt, and further amplify his claims that the Obama administration planted a spy in his presidential campaign.

“Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State,” he tweeted. “They go after Phony Collusion with Russia, a made up Scam, and end up getting caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before! What goes around, comes around!”

Trump has consistently denied that his campaign colluded with the Russian effort to sway the 2016 election in his favor, but his attacks on the Russia investigation have recently escalated.

Mueller’s investigation has so far resulted in 19 known indictments or guilty pleas from individuals, including four guilty pleas from Trump advisers, and three additional indictments against three Russian companies.

None of the guilty pleas secured so far relate directly to alleged collusion with the Russian attempt to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

Also on Wednesday the BBC reported that Ukraine secretly paid embattled Trump attorney Michael Cohen $400,000 to arrange a meeting last June between Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Citing sources in Kiev close to those involved, the BBC said intermediaries acting on behalf of Poroshenko paid Cohen.

Cohen denied the report, which said there is no indication that the president was aware of the payment.

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