Prosecutors with the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election pushed back at a court hearing Friday on claims that one of their own leaked information.
In an Alexandria, Va., federal court, FBI agent Jeff Pfeiffer testified that when Justice Department officials met with Associated Press reporters last April to discuss Paul Manafort, it was actually the law enforcement team that got something from the reporters — the fact that the longtime lobbyist and former Trump campaign chairman had a storage unit.
Attorneys for Manafort, who faces bank- and tax-fraud charges in Alexandria, have argued that Justice Department lawyer Andrew Weissmann may have leaked information to the AP at that meeting.
At the time, Weissmann was head of the department’s criminal-fraud division, which was investigating Manafort before Robert S. Mueller III’s election probe began.
Pfeiffer confirmed that Weissmann was at the meeting but said the law enforcement team offered “no comment” beyond saying generally that the reporters were on the right track.
Law enforcement agreed to the meeting to see whether they could “receive information from reporters” on the AP’s investigation into Manafort’s business dealings, Pfeiffer testified, agreeing that the news probe was “substantial.”
The AP on Friday described the meeting as a standard news-gathering effort by reporters.
“Associated Press journalists met with representatives from the Department of Justice in an effort to get information on stories they were reporting, as reporters do,” AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said in a statement. “During the course of the meeting, they asked DOJ representatives about a storage locker belonging to Paul Manafort, without sharing its name or location.”
The AP published a report the day after the meeting revealing that Manafort received at least $1.2 million in payments listed in a secret ledger detailing spending by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
Pfeiffer said he “may have learned” at the meeting that Manafort had a storage unit. After the meeting, he sought a subpoena that eventually led him to a locker in Alexandria containing many of Manafort’s business and financial records.
At issue in court Friday was whether the Manafort employee who allowed Pfeiffer into the unit had authorization to do so, and whether any alleged government leaks have biased potential jurors against Manafort.
Through the subpoena, Pfeiffer learned the name of Alexander Trusko, a personal assistant to Manafort who let federal agents into the unit.
Trusko set up the unit, according to documents presented in court, and his name was on the lease. He told Pfeiffer that Manafort was an “authorized user” but had probably never visited.
Pfeiffer said that after consulting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia and the Justice Department’s criminal division he got a search warrant “out of an abundance of caution,” although he believed that with Trusko’s signed agreement it was not necessary.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III did not immediately rule on either defense claim, or on another motion arguing that a search warrant to enter Manafort’s home was too broadly written.
But he quickly shot down a suggestion from one of Manafort’s attorneys, Kevin Downing, that the case could be delayed or even dismissed over the leak issue.
“How can he have a fair trial when the press and media have so . . . saturated the populace here?” Downing asked.
“I’m not going to dismiss the case,” Ellis said sharply, cutting him off repeatedly.
Downing referenced former vice president Spiro Agnew, suggesting that he was allowed to plead no contest to a single charge of tax evasion in the 1980s because of government leaks in his case.
Ellis said that he accepted pleas only from defendants who admitted guilt and that he remembered the history differently.
Ellis added that he could still decide to hold a hearing on whether grand-jury material was improperly disclosed but that it would take place after the July 25 trial. He made clear that he would not delay the trial further unless required to for personal reasons. A change of venue is “really the only remedy,” he said, and only if Manafort shows it is necessary.
“You’ve used the word ‘saturated’ many times — prove it,” he said. “Leaks don’t determine a transfer.”
Ellis also shot down Friday a request from Mueller’s team for a jury questionnaire, saying he would question all potential jurors himself. He also asked the government to cut down its current estimate of a three-week trial.
The search warrants at issue at the hearing also detail the extent to which Manafort found himself in debt and dependent on money from pro-Russian interests.
The records the FBI found, Pfeiffer said, include evidence that Manafort lied to obtain millions of dollars in loans and to obscure the money he was paid by Yanukovych’s party.
On loan applications over a three-month period in 2016, Manafort variously represented his net worth as $15 million, $17 million, $21 million and $36 million, according to the court documents.
In 2016, the same year he spent five months as Trump’s unpaid campaign chairman, according to the court documents, Manafort got at least $28.5 million in loans.
“He is so in debt,” an unidentified person wrote in an email regarding a $3.5 million loan to Manafort from a real estate company on Sept. 27, 2016, the documents state.
Six years earlier, Manafort reported on his tax returns a $10 million loan that appeared to come from Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin, according to the filings.
The court documents also detail more of Manafort’s spending, including $49,000 to stay with his wife at a villa in Italy and $21,000 for a limited-edition titanium “Royal Way” watch from the luxury men’s store House of Bijan.
Manafort faces related charges in D.C. federal court, where a judge recently ordered him jailed until trial. Attorneys challenged his detention order and late Thursday requested his immediate release pending appeal. They said Manafort’s 24-hour lockdown — except for attorney visits — at a Virginia jail two hours’ drive southeast of Washington made it “impossible to prepare for his upcoming trials.”
He did not appear in person Friday, having requested that he not be transferred from detention.
Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.