U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington spoke before closing the courtroom for a morning-long hearing to discuss Gates’s request to have another week to respond his defense attorneys’ Feb. 1 request to withdraw from the case due to “irreconcilable differences” with him.
Those differences have not been described in public filings beyond a brief statement that they involve private, “highly sensitive matters” that “would potentially be prejudicial to the Defendant as well as embarrassing.”
Gates on Wednesday sat at the defense table with the attorneys who have asked to leave the case, Shanlon Wu of Washington and Walter Mack and Annemarie McAvoy of New York.
But white-collar attorney Thomas C. Green of the Sidley law firm stood at Gates’s side during a break in proceedings and left the courtroom with him, after quipping to a reporter from a seat on a backbench, “I’m incognito.”
Gates engaged Green to represent him in the last few weeks, according to two people familiar with the situation, although Green has not entered his appearance with the court in Gates’s criminal trial. CNN first reported Green’s role Jan. 23 after spotting him at special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office, spurring speculation Gates may be in plea discussions with prosecutors.
A shift in defense counsel would be the third for Gates.
The disruption over attorneys has thrown a wrench into the case, which arose out of Manafort’s alleged secret lobbying for a Russia-friendly political party in Ukraine.
Both co-defendants pleaded not guilty Oct. 30 to a 12-count indictment, the first disclosed charges in Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the United States’ 2016 presidential election.
Jackson expressed a flash of anger for the case’s slow pace in getting to trial, which the defense had asked to begin no sooner than September, during the heart of the 2018 midterm elections.
“I believe that this case needs a trial date,” Jackson said Wednesday. “I realize there’s some circumstances that make that impossible today, but it needs to happen soon.”
She said both sides have spent months haggling over “minutiae” — such as bail and financial-security terms, releases for matters like children’s soccer practices and defendants’ changes of address — and now, for new counsel.
Jackson said she wanted to stick to a Feb. 23 deadline for the defendants to file motions to toss any charges. It remains unclear if prosecutors would bring new charges amid any plea discussions.
“The charges they are going to have to face can’t be kept a mystery for much longer,” the judge said at one point Wednesday.
Jackson originally set the Wednesday hearing to discuss scheduling matters as the case enters the phase of preparing for trial after prosecutors turned over some 640,000 records.
The hearing also included a closed session to revisit terms of a still-pending bail deal for Manafort, who remains largely under home confinement. The judge approved a $10 million secured bond package, but Manafort has not completed its execution, citing unspecified problems.
Gates last month was given conditional release on a nearly $5 million secured bond.
After the indictment, Gates split with his initial attorney, Michael Dry, with Vinson & Elkins. He was succeeded by Wu, of Wu, Grohovsky & Whipple in Washington; Mack of Doar Rieck Kaley & Mack in New York; and McAvoy, a consultant specializing in financial crime investigations.
Three people familiar with Gates’s situation said he is under financial pressure because of legal bills that outside experts have said would reach millions of dollars if his case went to trial. Gates had expressed interest, they said, in getting help from a legal-defense fund supported by major Republican donors.
The Office of Government Ethics in January signed off on the creation of such a fund to raise and distribute donations to help defray legal costs for people associated with Trump’s campaign or administration and who are called as witnesses in the Mueller or congressional investigations.
However, Gates would not appear to qualify for payments from the fund, according to a 49-page draft agreement for a limited liability company called the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, which was posted on the office’s website and was first reported by MSNBC Feb. 1.
The document states the fund is intended for volunteers or employees of Trump’s campaign, transition or administration, although not Trump himself or members of his family. The documents also state that payments are not intended to help fund the defense of “any charge or indictment for dishonest, fraudulent or criminal activity,” unless the fund manager determined the actions that resulted in criminal charges were undertaken in good faith in direct support for Trump’s campaign or administration and without knowledge by the person that they were illegal.
Gates faces charges due to financial activities undertaken before he joined the campaign.
One of three lawyers who submitted the paperwork to the ethics office regarding the fund, Michael Toner, declined to comment about the fund.
This story has been corrected to show that MSNBC first reported the existence of the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust and to show the firm at which Michael Dry works.
Rosalind S. Helderman and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.