A federal judge Friday dismissed a challenge brought by Paul Manafort to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s criminal probe of Russian interference in 2016 U.S. elections, ruling that Manafort may not use a lawsuit to thwart his prosecution.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson tossed out the attempt by Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, to bar the special counsel from bringing future charges against him. The judge cited the “sound and well-established principle” that potential defendants cannot “circumvent federal criminal procedure” that already permits individuals to challenge charges within criminal proceedings.
Manafort’s attorneys had at first asked the judge to void Mueller’s appointment and dismiss all indictments against Manafort already filed in the District and Virginia, contending Mueller had overstepped his authority. The attorneys later withdrew those requests and focused their arguments on any future charges.
The Justice Department had asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.
“A civil case is not the appropriate vehicle for taking issue with what a prosecutor has done in the past or where he might be headed in the future,” Jackson wrote.
Courts should not “interfere with or enjoin an ongoing criminal investigation when the defendant will have the opportunity to challenge any defects in the prosecution in the trial court or on direct appeal,” Jackson wrote, adding, “The court finds that this civil complaint must be dismissed.”
Manafort, 69, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges related to his work as an international political consultant in Ukraine before joining Trump’s campaign in March 2016. He resigned from the campaign in August 2016.
Manafort separately has moved to dismiss criminal charges in the District ahead of a scheduled September trial date there and in federal court in Alexandria, where he faces trial July 10 on tax-related and banking charges to which he also has pleaded not guilty.
He also has challenged Mueller’s authority in those cases.
“This opinion will not address, and should not be read as expressing, any opinion about the merits of those motions,” Jackson wrote.
Manafort’s attorneys have argued Mueller exceeded his authority by charging Manafort with numerous felonies, including conspiracy, bank and tax fraud, and money laundering, related to work done before 2014 on behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych.
The defense has focused on a provision that authorizes the special counsel to investigate possible collusion between Trump officials and the Russian government as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from” that investigation.
Manafort’s attorneys argue the May 2017 order by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein establishing the Mueller probe is so broad that it violates a department regulation that they contend requires a “specific factual description” of the matter to be investigated.
Kevin M. Downing, one of Manafort’s attorneys, said the provision gave prosecutors a “blank check” to pursue any matters and argued that Manafort’s dealings in Ukraine ended years before he joined Trump’s campaign.
Prosecutors defended their investigation into Manafort, saying his status as a top Trump campaign official and his long-standing ties to Russian-backed politicians, oligarchs and others warranted a probe into whether any served as “back channels” or a means for “surreptitious communications” to the campaign.
The charges against Manafort include conspiracy for actions that continued into 2016.
Jackson cited a federal appeals court ruling that “the subject of a criminal investigation may not bring a civil action to attack an impending criminal prosecution.”
While acknowledging the toll that criminal cases take on an individual’s reputation and finances, the courts have found, Jackson wrote, that “all citizens must submit to a criminal prosecution brought in good faith so that larger societal interests may be preserved.”
Rather than allowing defendants to skirt the process, courts typically require defendants to challenge the legality of charges or indictments through pretrial motions in criminal cases or post-trial appeals, the judge ruled.
Jackson also called the prospect of additional charges against Manafort “purely speculative.”
The judge concluded, “Since it is not clear at this point what actions, if any, the Special Counsel will take with respect to Manafort, and whether those future actions will be subject to attack for the same reasons set forth in the complaint, prudential considerations weight against hearing an action to prohibit them now.”