MANHATTAN (CN) – The New York Times brought a federal lawsuit to force production of Justice Department records on Ukrainian and pro-Russian lobbying firms.
Several of the records described in the March 8 line up with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecution of Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Represented by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic out of Yale Law School, the Times and investigative reporter Kenneth Vogel note that they first requested the documents under the Freedom of Information Act in August 2017.
The 7-page complaint says the Justice Department acknowledged receipt of the first three of Vogel’s four FOIA requests on Aug. 19, but the department has yet to produce any responsive records.
Since FOIA requires a response within 20 days and that deadline has passed, the Times and Vogel want a federal judge in Manhattan to intervene.
Vogel’s FOIA requests include the production of correspondences between the Justice Department and the Ukrainian Party of Regions, a pro-Russian political party that reportedly paid Manafort $750,000 for lobbying work.
Former Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country amid anti-government protests in 2014, was backed by the party.
Manafort was first indicted in October 2017 and pleaded not guilty last month to a superseding indictment that charges him with conspiracy to hide millions of dollars that he and former defendant Rick Gates accrued in connection to their lobbying for the Ukrainian government.
Vogel’s FOIA requests sought the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Act communications with the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based think tank under the direction of the Ukrainian government. Mueller contends that Manafort and Gates used the center to act as the go-between two D.C. firms they controlled, in order to minimize public disclosure of these lobbying efforts.
Mueller’s indictment of Gates says the men sought to distance themselves and develop a cover story to hide their activities, once media reports began mounting around Manafort’s possible connections with Ukraine in August 2016.
Vogel’s FOIA request also describes communications with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, a prominent New York law firm whose former attorney Alex Van Der Zwaan pleaded guilty on Feb. 20 to lying to Mueller’s investigators.
Mueller’s indictment of Van Der Zwaan was the 14th indictment announced by the investigation’s team in a four-day stretch in February.
Other communications that the Times has requested involve Prevezon, a Cyprus-based real estate company tied to a $230 million Russian tax-refund-fraud scheme involving New York real estate and corrupt Russian officials that was uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in pretrial detention in Moscow under suspicious circumstances.
On Thursday, a federal judge in Virginia set a July 10 trial date for Manafort on charges of bank and tax fraud associated with work he performed for Ukrainian lobbyists.
Manafort said he will fight the charges despite the fact that Gates, his longtime aide, is now cooperating with Mueller’s office.
Donald Trump, who has insisted there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, responded on Twitter to deflect the accusations tying Manafort to Russian interests. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”