Manafort Seeks New Venue for Upcoming Trial in Virginia

Jason Maloni, left, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s spokesman, left, walks with Paul Manafort, center, as they leave the Alexandria Federal Courthouse after an arraignment hearing in Alexandria, Va. in March 2018. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(CN) – President Trump’s embattled ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort is seeking a new venue for his upcoming trial in Alexandria, Virginia.

In a motion filed late Friday afternoon, Manafort said intense media coverage of his prosecution has imperiled his fair trial rights there given his role in the president’s campaign.

“As a result, for many Americans, Mr. Manafort’s legal issues and the attendant daily media coverage have become theatre in the continuing controversy surrounding President Trump and his election,” the 10-page motion says. “This controversy continues to engender strong partisans on both sides of every issue. As a result, it is difficult, if not impossible, to divorce the issues in this case from the political views of potential jurors.”

Manafort has asked the court to transfer to the case to Roanoke, Virginia, far from the intense media scrutiny in the Washington metropolitan area.

Manafort’s attorney Jay Nanavati with Kostelanetz & Fink pointed to the high profile of special counsel Robert Mueller himself, saying the media has portrayed the Russia probe “as a showdown” between Mueller and the president.

Nanavati also claims reporting on the recent indictment of Manafort’s right-hand man, Russian-born Konstantin Kilimnik, was “sensationalized and untethered from the facts in the case,” and focused on his alleged connection to Russian intelligence.

A grand jury in Washington brought a superseding indictment against Manafort and Kilimnik in Washington on June 8 for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice for their attempts to sway the testimony of two potential witnesses in the case.

On Friday Nanavati said Kilimnik was merely trying “to make contact with a former associate,” but U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington said the indictment implied probable cause of the alleged witness tampering.

As a result, she revoked Manafort’s pre-trial release and sent him to jail ahead of trial.

That move, Nanavati said Friday, “unleashed a spate of intensely negative news coverage suggesting that Mr. Manafort violated the law.”

“Indeed,” the motion continues, “even the President’s response on Twitter observed that Mr. Manafort receive a ‘tough sentence,’ incorrectly suggesting that Mr. Manafort had been sentenced for committing a crime.”

Nanavati said a change of venue is warranted since the media coverage has been most intense and negative in and around Washington, D.C., including in the Eastern District of Virginia where the first of Manafort’s two criminal trials is slated to kick off July 25.

Nanavati noted that Google searches about Russian collusion return 2.9 million results, while a search for articles about his client returns more than 1.3 million results.

“Reviewing these articles, one is hard pressed to find any that are not unfavorable to Mr. Manafort,” the motion says.

In a separate brief also filed late Friday, Manafort again pointed to leaks and “improper disclosures” of confidential and classified material as justification for moving the trial.

Earlier on Friday, Manafort asked for a court order Friday waiving his right to appear in an Alexandria, Virginia, federal court except for his upcoming trial and any potential sentencing.

“Mr. Manafort waives his right to appear because of the great time and distance involved in having the U.S. Marshals Service transport him to court from the Northern Neck Regional Jail,” the 3-page motion says.

Manafort was detained in the Warsaw jail on June 15 when U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson revoked his pre-trial release after a grand jury indicted him on two obstruction of justice charges for trying to influence the testimony of two potential witnesses while he was out on bail.

According to Manafort’s attorney Kevin Downing, the two-hour trek each way means that his client would spend some four hours in transport just to be present at court hearings.

Minus attorney visits, Downing says Manafort is locked in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

Manafort appealed his detention order on June 25 with the D.C. Circuit, claiming that it imperils his ability to prepare for two upcoming criminal trials – the first slated to begin July 25 in Virginia with the second to follow Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C.

Assistant special counsel Scott Meisler however said Thursday in a court filing in Washington that both the court and government have taken steps to minimize the impact of his detention on his ability to prepare for trial.

Manafort is facing charges of money laundering, conspiracy, bank and tax fraud, failing to register as a foreign lobbyist and now obstruction of justice stemming from unregistered lobbying work he did prior to 2014 on behalf of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.

Manafort, 69, has pleaded not guilty to all charges in both cases.

Lastly on Friday, prosecutors responded to Manafort’s June 22 motion to preclude evidence concerning his role in the Trump campaign, alleged collusion with Russia to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election, and anything related to his Washington, D.C. case.

Manafort had argued that none of that is relevant to the charges he faces in Virginia for bank and tax fraud and an alleged scheme to conceal tens of millions he earned lobbying for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.

He is also accused of fraudulently obtaining millions in loans, including when he worked for the Trump campaign, from financial institutions.

On Friday, prosecutor Andrew Weissmann with the special counsel’s office said the government has limited objections to the request, but suggested his role with the Trump campaign is relevant to the charges against him.

“It would be difficult for the jury to understand why the loans were approved without understanding that the lender approved the loans, in spite of the identified deficiencies, because the senior executive factored in his own personal ambition,” the reply says.

Weissmann also said Manafort’s bid to preclude evidence related to the D.C. trial is premature, and noted that there is “substantial overlap” between the two criminal cases.

But the government, Weissmann said, does not intend to reference the charges minus one small exception.

Prosecutors plan to introduce portions of the guilty plea of Manafort’s long-time associate Rick Gates, whom pleaded guilty to nearly identical charges on Feb. 23 and has been cooperating with the special counsel since.

“Rather than preclude the details of Gates’ guilty plea, a jury instruction that a co-conspirator’s guilty plea is not evidence of guilt of the defendant would address the defendant’s concern,” the motion said.

Weissmann meanwhile said prosecutors have no objection to Manafort’s request to preclude evidence concerning any collusion with the Russian because they do not plan on presenting any such evidence during trial.

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