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Virginia judge rules against Paul Manafort, will let fraud case continue

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaves a federal courthouse in Washington in April. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A federal judge in Virginia concluded Tuesday that special counsels are given too much latitude and that the current one is prosecuting Paul Manafort only so he will offer evidence against President Trump.

But those thoughts do little for the ex-lobbyist, because U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III ultimately ruled that Robert S. Mueller III’s prosecution of Manafort on bank and tax fraud charges can go forward.

“Although this case will continue, those involved should be sensitive to the danger unleashed when political disagreements are transformed into partisan prosecutions,” the judge wrote.

If there are no further delays, the July 25 trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria will be the first case brought by Mueller’s team to come before a jury.

What you need to know about Paul Manafort's ties to Russia. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Ellis made waves when he grilled prosecutors from the special counsel’s office last month, questioning whether the crimes Manafort is accused of committing while working for a Russia-backed political party in the Ukraine were outside the scope of their investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Federal judge says special counsel wants Manafort to ‘sing’ about Trump

The judge concluded that while he is, in general, skeptical of special counsels, this one was legally created and followed its mandate in prosecuting Manafort, the president’s onetime campaign chairman.

The May 2017 order appointing Mueller “plainly authorizes the investigation of indirect links between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government,” Ellis wrote, and “the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes that arise out of his authorized investigation.”

That authorization was only made more clear, Ellis added, by an August 2017 memorandum explicitly stating that the Manafort investigation fell under the special counsel’s purview.

Manafort, 69, is accused in both Alexandria and D.C. federal courts of illegally obscuring his work for pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases and argued that the charges against him have nothing to do with the 2016 election.

As he did in court last month, Ellis asserted in his opinion that Mueller’s real interest in Manafort is as a cooperator against the president.

“Even a blind person can see that the true target of the Special Counsel’s investigation is President Trump, not defendant, and that defendant’s prosecution is part of that larger plan,” he wrote in a footnote. “Although these kinds of high-pressure prosecutorial tactics are neither uncommon nor illegal, they are distasteful.”

Ellis also reiterated his concern that the special counsel’s jurisdiction was too broad, calling it “a close question.” Special counsels generally, he wrote, are too similar to independent counsels of the past that could be seen as a “political weapon.” He wrote that a “bipartisan commission with subpoena power” would be a better mechanism for investigating Russia’s role in the election.

Republicans have blocked efforts to establish such a commission.

Ellis’s similarly skeptical comments at the May hearing cheered supporters of the president. At the time, Trump himself praised the judge from the stage of a National Rifle Association event in Dallas, calling him “something very special.”

Ellis found that the Manafort investigation falls squarely within the realm of possible collusion between Trump officials and the Russian government and noted that the inquiry was approved by the deputy attorney general.

Even so, he questioned the breadth of the probe.

“The wisdom of allowing all links between individuals associated with President Trump’s campaign and the Russian government to be subject to investigation, irrespective of how stale those connections might be, is seriously in doubt,” Ellis wrote in a footnote. “Nevertheless, the grant of investigatory authority is written broadly, and does capture the connections at issue in this case.”

Manafort, who in his career as a consultant advised both Republican presidents and foreign dictators, was struggling financially in 2005 when he was connected with Yanukovych, whose party was dominated by oligarchs who made their fortunes after the fall of the Soviet Union. Manafort burnished their image at home with sharp rhetoric and in the United States with talk of working together and supporting NATO.

The effort succeeded — Yanu­kovych was elected president in 2010. But he was ousted four years later amid widespread anti-
corruption protests.

In Virginia, Manafort is accused of illegally hiding millions of dollars that prosecutors say he made from that work in offshore bank accounts and failing to pay taxes on it. When Yanukovych was unseated and the money dried up, prosecutors say Manafort lied about his income and debt to secure millions in new loans against expensive real estate he had bought with the illegal income.

In the District, Manafort is accused of failing to register as a foreign agent when he lobbied for Yanukovych and lying about doing so, while conspiring to launder the money he made.

Manafort served as Trump’s campaign chairman for five months, resigning in the wake of reports that his work involving Ukraine may have been unlawful.

Manafort has put forward additional legal challenges, some of which will be aired at a hearing on Friday. He has disputed the constitutionality of searches of his Alexandria home and storage unit. He also wants Ellis to look into leaks to reporters of information about the case, alleging they were intended to bias jurors.

Ellis’s decision echoes one reached last month by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who denied a similar motion to dismiss charges in the District. That case has grown heated, with the special counsel’s office accusing Manafort of pressuring witnesses to testify falsely and Jackson ordering he be held in jail pending a Sept. 17 trial.

Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.