In an indictment updated Friday, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III accused Paul Manafort and Rick Gates of secretly retaining “a group of former senior European politicians to take positions favorable to Ukraine, including by lobbying in the United States.”
These former European leaders would claim to provide independent assessments of the Kiev government, but would in fact be “paid lobbyists” for Ukraine. In 2012 and 2013, Manafort used at least four offshore bank accounts to wire more than 2 million euros (roughly $2.5 million) to the group, the indictment states.
Though the group's members weren't named, they are collectively given an informal nickname: the “Hapsburg group,” an apparent reference (using an alternative spelling) to the Habsburg royal dynasty that ruled the Holy Roman Empire for centuries.
If the allegations prove accurate, it would be an example of how the American political operatives sought to influence international politics for Manafort's client, the political party of Viktor Yanukovych, then the Ukrainian president. Yanukovych later fled to Russia after protests against his regime.
In 2016, Manafort and Gates went to work for the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, which is why Mueller's team has been investigating them. Gates on Friday pleaded guilty to conspiracy to evade paying taxes and lying to the FBI over questions about his and Manafort's work with the Ukrainians, while striking a deal to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
Mueller is tasked with looking into Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, including possible interactions with the Trump campaign.
The “Hapsburg group” detail in the indictment released Friday triggered widespread attention in Europe, as well as speculation over which European politicians were in Manafort's alleged group.
One European politician, “Foreign Politician A” in the document, is described as a “former European Chancellor.” In 2013, this politician led a group that “lobbied United States Members of Congress, officials in the executive branch, and their staffs” in coordination with Manafort and Gates, the indictment states.
There are two countries where the word “chancellor” is used to describe the head of state. Both happen to have strong historical links to the Habsburg dynasty — Austria and Germany.
In Europe, speculation quickly fell upon Alfred Gusenbauer, who was Austria's chancellor in 2007 and 2008. Since leaving office, Gusenbauer has been criticized for paid consulting work he has undertaken for autocratic regimes. He was also named in the Panama Papers, an enormous 2016 leak of documents from an offshore banking network.
According to a disclosure form filed retroactively in 2017 by the Manafort-linked lobbying firm Mercury, Gusenbauer in 2013 met with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), as well as with committee staffers and others.
Speaking to Die Presse on Saturday, Gusenbauer confirmed that he had met with American politicians around that time and did not deny that he had received money from an “American or English company,” but he said he was not aware of any links to Manafort. In the article, Gusenbauer did say he had met Manafort previously — once in Europe and once in the United States — but it was “just for a coffee.”
Gusenbauer also defended his intentions in an interview with the BBC, saying that he was part of a “noble” effort to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union, but he repeated that he was not aware of Manafort financing this activity. “I was not employed by Mr. Yanukovych's government,” he said. “I was, in the European, and American and general interest, working for an association agreement between Ukraine and Europe.”
A number of other former European politicians can be found in Mercury LLC's filings:
Romano Prodi, Italy's prime minister between 1996 and 1998, and again from 2006 to 2008, was shown as meeting Royce, as well as staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the office of then-Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who was House Majority Leader from January 2011 to August 2014. Prodi told the New York Times that he did not believe he had been paid by Manafort and that he had “never been paid from any lobby group in America.”
Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010, was listed as attending a meeting with then-Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) in 2012.
A separate document listed Aleksander Kwasniewski, president of Poland from 1995 to 2005, as a speaker at "educational events and meetings for members of Congress and staff, think tanks and other nongovernmental organizations, and the media.”
A representative of Kwasniewski, reached on Saturday, declined to comment directly on the matter but pointed toward comments Kwasniewski had made to the New York Times, in which he said that although he had met Manafort a handful of times, he did not have a financial relationship with him and had not heard of the Hapsburg group.
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