MANILA — The Philippines officially withdrew from the International Criminal Court on Sunday, after the country’s highest court declined to overrule President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to pull out from the world’s only permanent war crimes tribunal.
Manila announced it was withdrawing from the court a year ago, but under court rules, the withdrawal could not take effect for at least 12 months. The Philippines is the second country to withdraw from the Hague-based body after Burundi, which left in 2017.
Romel Bagares, a lawyer for a coalition of rights activists who had asked the Supreme Court of the Philippines for an injunction against the move, said the Philippine withdrawal was “a terrible setback in the long fight against impunity in the country.”
“It is our last resort when our institutions fail,” Mr. Bagares said of the international court, “and they have grievously been failing in the last two years, with apparent government inaction on thousands of deaths arising from the president’s drug war.”
In withdrawing from the court last year, Mr. Duterte said that the Philippine government had enough mechanisms in place to ensure that the justice system functioned properly. He also insulted the court and threatened to arrest Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer and the court’s chief prosecutor, if she entered the Philippines.
The court has been conducting a preliminary inquiry into accusations that Mr. Duterte and other Philippine officials committed mass murder and crimes against humanity in the course of the drug crackdown. That inquiry stemmed from a complaint filed by a Filipino lawyer representing two men who said they had been assassins for Mr. Duterte in Davao, the southern city where Mr. Duterte became mayor in the late 1980s.
A second complaint was filed last August by relatives of eight people killed by police officers in the drug war; they also accused Mr. Duterte of murder.
In their Supreme Court motion, the rights activists said that withdrawing from the court would deprive Filipinos of “effective remedies” against genocide and other crimes against humanity.
The petitioners argued that “those who kill with impunity will only be further emboldened.”
When Mr. Duterte took office in 2016, he vowed to end the scourge of drugs and dump the bodies of slain addicts and dealers in Manila Bay. More than 5,000 people have been killed by the police in what are often described as drug raids. Rights groups say many more have been killed by unofficial militias.
The extrajudicial killings have met with condemnation from the international community and public anger in the Philippines. In November, three police officers were found guilty of murdering a teenager who was mistaken for a drug pusher, the first such convictions in the antidrug campaign.
Mr. Bagares said Mr. Duterte’s withdrawal from the court could have lasting consequences for human rights protections in the Philippines, which endured two decades of martial law under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who died in exile in 1989.
“We have further emboldened forces of impunity by removing one of the last restraints holding them back,” Mr. Bagares said. “Philippine society will pay dearly for this.”
On Thursday, Mr. Duterte released a new list of 46 people he claimed were “narcopoliticians” and vowed that his drug war would be more bloody in his last three years in office.
It is separate from a list of 150 judges, local officials and police and military officers he released just months into office. Several mayors who were on that list have since been gunned down.
Human Rights Watch said the 46 new names were a “veritable hit list” meant to target Mr. Duterte’s political opponents.
Risa Hontiveros, an opposition senator, said Sunday that by withdrawing from the court, Mr. Duterte was trying to avoid international scrutiny of his drug war. But she said that would not stop the court from continuing its investigation.
“He can still be held liable for offenses committed while the Philippines was a signatory to the I.C.C.,” Ms. Hontiveros said.
Salvador Panelo, a spokesman for Mr. Duterte, said Thursday that as far as the government was concerned, the court no longer had the authority to investigate the Philippines.
He said that unlike Burundi, the Philippines had not had a case filed against it before quitting the court.
“They don’t have jurisdiction. If they don’t have jurisdiction, they cannot do anything against us,” Mr. Panelo said. “We are not bound by their rules.”
Syrian activists and lawyers are testing the bounds of international law, making two new attempts to bring the government of Bashar al-Assad before the International Criminal Court.
Syrian refugees in Jordan, through London-based lawyers, sent communications to the office of the ICC prosecutor, asking her to exercise jurisdiction over Syria based on a precedent set last year in a case involving Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims. The communications are the latest push by Syrian civilians to hold accountable the government whose brutality upended their lives. In recent years, Syrian lawyers and human rights activists have experimented with rarely utilized aspects of international law, succeeding in getting European and American courts to weigh in on atrocities committed in Syria.
“Because of how politicized the war in Syria became, lawyers and those fighting for accountability really had to be creative,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The most recent ICC Article 15 submissions” — a reference to communications with the ICC on information about alleged international crimes — “are evidence of this, that there is space for creativity in the accountability space.”
“It is not possible for Syria to stabilize unless these criminals are held accountable.”
The efforts come as the Syrian conflict enters its ninth year. On March 15, 2011, eight years ago yesterday, Syrians, inspired by the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, took to the streets in a “Day of Rage” demonstration. Within a few days, protesters around the country were calling for freedom, dignity, and political reforms. Later that month, activists in the southern city of Daraa toppled a statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad that stood in a city square. This past Sunday, hundreds of Daraawis marched once again, this time to protest the erection of a new statue of the former Syrian president.
In the intervening years, a mass anti-government uprising descended into a merciless war involving at least a half-dozen countries, each of which has contributed to Syria’s destruction. Few would dispute, however, that the Assad regime is responsible for most of the violence that flattened entire cities, uprooted millions of people from their homes, and killed — according to an estimate that is now three years old — 470,000 people.
The scale of atrocities is unfathomable, yet the perpetrators have evaded accountability — and are gradually being welcomed back into the diplomatic fold. Some Arab states, which effectively blacklisted Assad in 2011, are slowly thawing their relations with the Syrian regime, while Russia, Iran, and China have invested in lucrative reconstruction contracts.
The victims of the war, however, have not been deterred from pursuing justice. One goal of their efforts, said Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, is to send a strong message that core members of the Syrian regime should not be considered part of any transition period or political solution to the Syrian conflict. “The goal of our work is to block any attempt to rehabilitate war criminals and people who’ve committed crimes against humanity,” said al-Bunni, whose work with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights led Germany’s federal prosecutor to issue an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the head of Syria’s notorious Air Force Intelligence Directorate. “It is not possible for Syria to stabilize unless these criminals are held accountable.”
The International Criminal Court, which sits in the Hague in the Netherlands, is an international, intergovernmental tribunal created by the Rome Statute with the authority to investigate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Often referred to as a court of last resort, it hears cases when state courts are unwilling or unable to do so, or when the United Nations Security Council or individual states refer cases to the court.
The U.N. Security Council in 2014 floated a resolution to refer Syria to the ICC. China and Russia (Syria’s patron state), exercised their veto power to block that from happening. Because Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute, the court has no independent basis for jurisdiction. A ruling from the court last year, in a case pertaining to Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya, however, opened up a new possibility for those hoping to bring Syria before the ICC.
In September, ICC judges issued a pretrial ruling that said the court could exercise jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar, which is not an ICC member state, to Bangladesh, which is. Deportation is a crime against humanity, and the court reasoned that one element of the crime — crossing the border — occurred in Bangladesh, thereby creating jurisdiction. The judges also ruled that the court could look into other crimes under the Rome Statute, such as persecution and other inhumane acts.
Based on that precedent, Syrians are arguing that the ICC has jurisdiction over deportations from Syria to Jordan, which is party to the Rome Statute and is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees. The London-based Guernica Center for International Justice submitted an Article 15 communication to ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on March 4, asking her to open an investigation into the forcible deportation of Syrians into Jordan. A group of lawyers, led by Rodney Dixon QC of Temple Garden Chambers, filed a similar communication on March 7, on behalf of 28 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
While the lawyers publicly announced their submissions, Article 15 communications are confidential and generally come to light only if the prosecutor decides to take some sort of action.
“Anyone can communicate with the court through Article 15 of the Rome Statute, the treaty that underpins the court, basically sending information to the court,” said Heidi Nichols Haddad, author of “The Hidden Hands of Justice: NGOs, Human Rights, and International Courts.” “It’s then up to the prosecutor to compile that information and decide whether to take it to a judge and move forward with a preliminary investigation.”
In a statement to The Intercept, the office of the prosecutor confirmed the receipt of the Syria-related communications. “As we do with all such communications, we will analyse the materials submitted, as appropriate, in accordance with the Rome Statute and with full independence and impartiality,” Bensouda’s office wrote. “As soon as we reach a decision on the appropriate next step, we will inform the sender and provide reasons for our decision.”
Jordan’s response could make all the difference.
Bensouda could either decline to take action or unilaterally decide to open a preliminary investigation. A third option would be to file a pretrial motion asking the court’s judicial chamber to rule on jurisdiction, as Bensouda did in the case of Myanmar. The court would ask Syria to respond and Jordan to weigh in. Last year, Bangladesh welcomed an investigation into the deportation of the Rohingya into its territory; with regard to Syria, Jordan’s response could make all the difference, cautioned al-Bunni, the human rights lawyer.
“The party that has to request an investigation is the government of Jordan, because it’s the one that’s suffered the harm,” he said. The question of jurisdiction could put Jordan in a quandary, caught between a just cause of helping Syrians’ quest for accountability and the geopolitical implications of helping to facilitate the prosecution of the head of a neighboring state. The Jordanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return a request for comment.
The legal teams built their filings around interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan, in addition to the massive trove of documentation of crimes in Syria from the last eight years.
“I actually think the case is stronger as far as Syria is concerned than it was as far as the Rohingya were concerned,” said Toby Cadman, an attorney at the Guernica Group, which submitted an amicus brief in the Rohingya case. He noted that the scale of displacement in Syria is much larger: About 5 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011, compared to about 730,000 Rohingya refugees.
“That’s not to underestimate the significance of what happened to the Rohingya,” Cadman said. “I think just that the way the conflict has been documented in Syria, we actually know a lot more about what’s happened [there] than what’s happened in Myanmar.”
While the lawyers focused their filings on the crime of deportation, following the precedent set by the Rohingya decision, they also laid out other potential crimes that have occurred in Syria — the use of chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombings of civilian centers, and torture — as well as the risks that refugees would face upon being returned to Syria, such as conscription and detention.
“I interviewed Syrians who did not have a choice to stay in Syria, and had no choice in returning.”
“I interviewed Syrians who did not have a choice to stay in Syria, and had no choice in returning, and that usually means you’re speaking to people who have been detained, or people who are in fear of detention,” said Ibrahim Olabi, a Syrian lawyer who is completing his legal training at Guernica. “I interviewed people who had nothing to do with the uprising and were picked up and detained and tortured, again, in the worst possible means.”
One Syrian interviewed by Dixon’s team said she saw a child blown into pieces by a projectile, “which is a moment seared into her memory,” according to an excerpt from an Article 15 communication that Dixon shared with The Intercept.
She states that when bombing campaigns started in her town, everything intensified. When her cousin decided to flee with his family, he was killed in a missile attack on a minibus and the bus was so burnt that her family could not identify his body. She described her grave fear for her life and the life of her family during the bombing campaigns which randomly targeted buildings around her and hit a school nearby. She decided to flee to Jordan when she heard that regime forces had “cleansed” another part of her town and were moving to her area. She said the regime forces were implementing a policy of cleansing and that she feared she and her family would be killed.
“It’s important to understand that in order to prove crimes against humanity, the prosecutor has to show that there is an attack on the civilian population,” said Dixon. “All of the other crimes that have occurred in Syria can be used by the prosecutor to prove that there has been an attack on the civilian population, of which these deportations are a part.”
That’s not to say that the ICC would necessarily be able to seek convictions in relation to those wider crimes, but the prosecutor would at least gather evidence of them. “That’s important because it gives those victims a voice and it gives the opportunity to a prosecutor to prove the wider pattern and policy of crimes,” Dixon said, “which would be very important for the record and can then be used, in this case, to file a case of deportation and the other crimes against humanity.”
There are limitations to the ICC’s ability to prosecute cases and hold perpetrators accountable. One clear example is that of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been wanted by the ICC for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur for a decade. Because the ICC does not have a police force, it needs cooperation from states who would be willing to execute an arrest. Al-Bashir, however, has traveled around the world, including to ICC member states, and remains a free man.
The legal maneuvering Syrians have done to try to bring their case before the ICC represents another limitation. Even when the evidence of potential crimes exists, investigations into crimes committed in states that have not ratified the Rome Statute are near impossible because of jurisdictional issues, and U.N. Security Council members are quick to use their veto power to block investigations into crimes potentially committed by their allies.
That’s what makes the various avenues Syrians are pursuing so significant. As of last March, more than two dozen cases had been filed in European courts regarding atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, rebel fighters, and the Islamic State and other fundamentalist militant groups. The family of Marie Colvin, an American journalist killed in 2012 while reporting from the city of Homs, sued the Syrian government in a U.S. district court; in January, the court found Syria responsible for killing Colvin.
Many of the cases in Europe were brought under a legal doctrine known as universal jurisdiction; application of the doctrine varies from country to country, but it essentially allows for courts to prosecute cases regardless of where the crime was committed or whether the accused party has any links to the prosecuting state.
The biggest success so far has been in Germany, where authorities last month arrested a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer and two others who are accused of crimes against humanity for torturing detainees in Syrian prisons. Other cases remain pending in France, Sweden, and Spain. (Cadman and al-Bunni have been involved with some of these cases.)
These attempts are possible in part due to an unprecedented level of documentation of crimes in Syria. The victims in some of the cases were identified from a trove of 28,000 photos of people killed in Syrian detention centers, smuggled out of the country by a military defector codenamed Caesar. The U.N. General Assembly, in December 2016, took the step of creating the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to investigate crimes in Syria since 2011. The IIIM, as the body is known, does not have independent prosecutorial authority, but it exists to collect information that could later be provided to courts or tribunals with jurisdiction over the crimes. Last year, 28 Syrian nongovernmental organizations committed to collaborating with the IIIM on its work.
Groups like Guernica and the Syrian Legal Development Program, which Olabi founded as a law student in 2014, have trained Syrian lawyers and human rights activists on how to document atrocities in a way that would make the evidence admissible in court.
“What we’ve been doing, for example, is assisting [activists with] how to document in a legal way,” Olabi said of the Syrian Legal Development Program. “So we created witness interview questions for organizations, for example, that were documenting forced displacement, or helped an organization that’s working on chemical weapons, put it together in the legal framework, which then leads to all the different reports that we used in our Guernica submission.”
Syrians are making use of every tool at their disposal to hold perpetrators accountable under international law, yet many of them hope to see these crimes prosecuted in a post-conflict Syria some day.
“The prosecutions have to happen in Syria, absolutely,” said al-Bunni. “But we have to get there and prepare to have prosecutions in Syria, prepare for transitional justice in Syria; but to get there, we need to show that these people are criminals and no one should interact with them in any shape or form.”
As the Syrian regime cements its military victory, the prospect of a post-Assad state — or a period of transitional justice — is difficult to imagine. Until then, the mere process of pushing for accountability at every forum possible has a number of benefits, El-Sadany said.
“The fact that individuals who are once thought to never have been able to be held accountable are being held accountable or evidence is being collected, I think that is important in and of itself,” she said. “The process of participating in these cases, the process of documenting the evidence, the process of even speaking out loud about the violations that an individual or victim had to endure and who perpetrated those violations, that’s important from a documentation perspective; from a healing perspective for victims; for the memorialization and education perspective so that decades from now, the history of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian war isn’t rewritten.”
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All parents want their children to get into the best possible college. But paying bribes to have them admitted to elite schools as athletes, or having someone provide the answers for their standardized tests, clearly crosses the boundary into unacceptable conduct.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Boston charged 33 parents and 13 coaches with engaging in a long-running scheme to get children into colleges by gaming the admissions process. Among those caught up in the case are the actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman; William E. McGlashan Jr., a partner at the private equity firm TPG; Gordon Caplan, the co-chairman of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher; and Doug Hodge, the retired chief executive of Pimco.
But how is paying bribes or submitting falsified test scores to get a child into a private college like Georgetown or the University of Southern California a federal crime?
Mail and wire fraud statutes identify a scheme to defraud as including the “right of honest services.” That turns the dishonesty of getting your child admitted to their college of choice into a crime that is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The honest-services law had been a means to police corporate or official dishonesty without requiring proof of a benefit to the defendant. But in 2010, the Supreme Court, in the appeal of former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, limited honest-services fraud to cases involving bribes and kickbacks.
Now if a university coach or employee takes payment in exchange for improperly admitting a student who is not otherwise qualified, it can be a federal crime because it violates the honest services owed to the school. For the parents charged in the case, paying the bribe means that they are just as guilty for acting as an accomplice in the fraudulent scheme.
How do people go off the rails so easily by engaging in clearly dishonest conduct? The criminal complaint is replete with exchanges that show the parents had little regard for the possible criminality of what they were doing.
Mr. Caplan was quoted as telling a cooperating witness in the case: “I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the— if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”
Another parent charged in the case, Jane Buckingham, is quoted as telling a confidential informant: “I know this is craziness; I know it is. And then I need you to get him into U.S.C., and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East.” Ms. Buckingham paid $50,000 to have someone else take the ACT exam for her son, according to the complaint.
Mr. Caplan, a lawyer, especially should have recognized that the conduct had crossed the line into criminality. But for Mr. Caplan, Ms. Buckingham and the other parents, getting their child into the best school seemed to override any concerns about ethics.
So why would otherwise law-abiding individuals flout the law?
The answer may lie in the fact that most white-collar crimes do not have an obvious victim. As a result, individuals can convince themselves that they have not really done anything wrong.
Gaming the system to get your child into a top-tier college is much the same. There is no easily identifiable victim, and applicants denied admission may well chalk up their rejection to the luck of the draw or the unknown factors that lead one college to turn away a prospective student and another to accept that person.
Of course, the action of the parents charged did cause actual harm, even if the victim is unaware of it. University admissions are largely a zero-sum game, so taking one slot means a worthy student was sent away. Not knowing who that person is does not lessen the harm.
Wealth can buy a lot of access. Paying bribes to sneak your child into a favored college, though, might result in short prison terms for some of the parents.
WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday nearly doubled the prison sentence of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to seven and a half years, denouncing him as a man who “spent a significant portion of his career gaming the system.”
Minutes later, the Manhattan district attorney filed a raft of state criminal charges, including mortgage fraud, that could ensure that Mr. Manafort remains behind bars even if the president decides — as he has appeared to hint — to pardon Mr. Manafort for his crimes. Convictions for state crimes are not subject to federal pardons.
The proceedings amounted to a wrenching defeat for Mr. Manafort, 69, who came to his sentencing in a wheelchair because of gout and pleading for probation so he could spend his final years with his wife.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of United States District Court in Washington expressed scant sympathy for his plight. Rather, she closed out the highest-profile prosecution brought by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, with a blistering critique of Mr. Manafort’s character and a rapid-fire litany of his legal and ethical transgressions.
She said that Mr. Manafort had used his many talents as a strategist to evade taxes, deceive banks, subvert lobbying laws and obstruct justice — all so he could sustain an “ostentatiously opulent” lifestyle with “more houses than a family can enjoy, more suits than one man can wear.”
Ever since his initial bail hearing, she said, he had misled her and the prosecutors, part of what she called his determined efforts to obscure the facts. Even on his sentencing day, she implied, he appeared to be making a play for a presidential pardon by wrongly suggesting that he was merely the victim of overzealous prosecutors who had hoped to prove that the Trump campaign had conspired with the Russian government to tilt the 2016 election.
“The defendant is not public enemy No. 1, but he is also not a victim either,” Judge Jackson said.
She stopped short of giving Mr. Manafort the maximum 10-year term that she could have imposed, adding three and a half years to the nearly four-year term Mr. Manafort received last week in a related prosecution in Alexandria, Va. Explaining why she was not harsher, she cited guidelines intended to limit punishment in overlapping cases and the fact that Mr. Manafort’s effort to tamper with witnesses who could testify against him had been “nipped in the bud.”
Her attitude stood in stark contrast to that of Judge T. S. Ellis III of United States District Court in Northern Virginia, who said last week that Mr. Manafort had “led an otherwise blameless life” in sentencing him to 47 months for eight felonies, a punishment that some legal experts described as startlingly low.
In an apparent reference to Judge Ellis, Judge Jackson noted that she was bound strictly by the case in front of her. “What is happening today is not and cannot be a review and a revision by a sentence imposed by another court,” she said.
But she said the scale of Mr. Manafort’s crimes was remarkable. “It is hard to overstate the number of lies and the amount of fraud and the amount of money involved,” she said. “There is no question that this defendant knew better and he knew what he was doing.”
Outside the courthouse, Mr. Manafort’s lead lawyer, Kevin Downing, described Judge Jackson’s decision as “such a callous, harsh sentence that is totally unnecessary.” Mr. Downing, who was repeatedly interrupted by protesters, called it a “very sad day.”
Mr. Manafort’s defense lawyers had repeatedly suggested that their client would be a free man had he not worked for the Trump campaign for five months in 2016, implying that Mr. Mueller’s investigators pursued him for crimes unrelated to the campaign only because they hoped to use him as a steppingstone in the Russia inquiry.
Judge Jackson firmly dismissed that argument, noting that investigators often find evidence of unrelated crimes during inquiries, and that “the perpetrators uncovered that way do not get a pass.” She said the argument was aimed at “some other audience,” an apparent allusion to the White House, not at her.
The judge accused Mr. Manafort of a sleight of hand throughout the criminal proceeding against him, including wrongly inflating his assets in a bail hearing and exaggerating the harshness of his conditions in jail. She suggested that he had sought to outmaneuver prosecutors by agreeing to plead guilty to conspiracy and cooperate with them, then backtracking and lying to the special counsel’s office and a grand jury.
“Was he spinning the facts beforehand to get a good deal, or was he spinning them afterwards to protect others?” she asked. “We don’t know.”
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Even Mr. Manafort’s apology for his crimes rang somewhat hollow, she said, because it appeared to be prompted by Judge Ellis’s criticism that he did not seem sufficiently contrite during last week’s sentencing.
Each of the conspiracy charges considered at Wednesday’s hearing carried a maximum prison term of five years. But because the underlying conduct for one conspiracy count was much the same as the bank and tax fraud scheme for which Mr. Manafort was convicted in Northern Virginia, Judge Jackson cut his punishment for that charge in half, to 30 months. “He cannot be sentenced for those components twice,” she said.
She sentenced him to 13 months on the second conspiracy charge, which involved obstruction of justice, saying his efforts to influence the testimony of witnesses had largely come to naught because the witnesses had rebuffed him.
In requesting probation, Mr. Manafort noted that he would turn 70 in two weeks and had already been stripped of his wealth. “Please let my wife and I be together,” he said. “I am a different person than the one who came before you in October 2017,” when he was first indicted.
Much of the hearing in Washington focused on Mr. Manafort’s violations of the law requiring foreign lobbyists to disclose their activities in the United States — probably because the other charges had been aired at length in the Virginia case.
Andrew Weissmann, the lead prosecutor, said Mr. Manafort and others, at his behest, secretly lobbied for the government of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who led Ukraine from 2010 to 2014. Former European politicians and other members of Mr. Manafort’s team presented themselves as independent experts, disguising their true client.
“This deliberate effort to obscure the facts undermines our political discourse,” Judge Jackson said.
Judge Jackson tends to be relatively lenient on convicted criminals who appear before her. In the five years that ended in 2017, she handed down an average prison sentence of 32 months, below the Washington district’s average of 46 months and the nationwide average of 47 months, according to court data maintained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
But she also has gone out of her way to make clear that being well connected earns no chits in her court. “She knows who commits white-collar crime,” said Heather Shaner, a Washington lawyer who represented an embezzler in her court. “And she thinks it’s perfectly fine to punish them if they commit a crime and hold them to a higher standard because they have the education, and because they have the wealth.”
The prospect that Mr. Trump could pardon Mr. Manafort has hung over the proceedings for many months. Late last year, Mr. Trump said that he “wouldn’t take it off the table.” More recently, he said, “I don’t even discuss it.”
Asked again after Wednesday’s sentencing, Mr. Trump said: “I have not even given it a thought, as of this moment. It’s not something that’s right now on my mind.” He added, “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort,” saying “certainly, on a human basis, it’s a very sad thing.”
He said again that the special counsel’s investigation was “a hoax.” In remarks that appeared aimed at the president, Mr. Downing said outside the courthouse that “two courts have ruled no evidence of any collusion with the Russians.”
In fact, Judge Jackson and Judge Ellis simply noted that the evidence against Mr. Manafort was not related to Russia’s election meddling.
The new charges filed in New York, in an indictment secured by the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., were apparently meant to ensure that Mr. Manafort would be punished even if he was pardoned. They were rooted in the same financial fraud that led to Mr. Manafort’s downfall in federal courthouses. He is charged with falsifying business records to obtain millions of dollars in loans from two banks.
“No one is beyond the law in New York,” Mr. Vance said. He said his investigation had “yielded serious criminal charges for which the defendant has not been held accountable.”
While a spokesman for Mr. Manafort said he had no comment, some legal experts predicted that Mr. Manafort would challenge the new charges on the grounds of double jeopardy.
Paul Manafort Is Sentenced to Less Than 4 Years in 1 of 2 Cases Against Him
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Manafort’s 47 Months: A Sentence That Drew Gasps From Around the Country
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Manafort’s Lawyers, Saying He Learned ‘Harsh Lesson,’ Seek Lenient Sentence
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Paul Manafort’s Lawyers Argue He Has Been Unfairly ‘Vilified’ Before Sentencing
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Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
On Tuesday, Felicity Huffman was among dozens of boldfaced names implicated in a sprawling college admissions and testing scheme unveiled by federal prosecutors. According to the criminal complaint, the Desperate Housewives star paid a “purported charitable contribution of $15,000” to a nonprofit called Key Worldwide Foundation, which was actually meant “to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme on behalf of her oldest daughter.” (The court document alleges that Huffman also tried to use the same scam for her younger daughter, but ultimately decided not to.)
For her part in the racket, Huffman has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. However, in the wake of the actress’s arrest, one wrinkle has emerged: Huffman is very famously married to fellow Oscar nominee William H. Macy, who also seems to have been embroiled in the scheme. The actor is not named in the complaint — he’s listed only as “spouse” — and unlike his wife, he has not been charged with a crime. Why did the long arm of the law only apprehend one half of Filliam H. Muffman?
Based on court documents, there seems to be little doubt that Macy was an active participant in the fraud. A cooperating witness, referred to as CW-1, allegedly met with Huffman and Macy at their Los Angeles home sometime before a December 2017 SAT exam. According to the complaint, this witness “explained, in substance, how the college entrance exam scheme worked.”
“According to CW-1, he advised Huffman and her spouse that he ‘controlled’ a testing center, and could arrange for a third party to purport to proctor their daughter’s SAT and secretly correct her answers afterwards. CW-1 has advised investigators that Huffman and her spouse agreed to the plan,” the document alleges.
The complaint also claims that Macy was on a December 12, 2018, call with Huffman and the cooperating witness to discuss their younger daughter possibly taking the SAT over a two-day period.
“Do we want two days?” Macy allegedly asked this witness, later saying, “She’ll score higher. Just her base score will be higher if we did it over two days.”
The Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to say why the Shameless actor isn’t facing charges. However, several legal experts talked to Vulture about why a spouse might not be charged in this type of situation.
“There are a couple of different possibilities. One of the possibilities is that the husband is far less culpable,” explained Rebecca Roiphe, a New York Law School professor and former prosecutor. “Maybe it’s possible that the government has far more evidence than it’s laid out here, and in this evidence, that Huffman played a far more significant role than her husband.”
Why was Macy kept (semi-)anonymous in the complaint? Roiphe explained that when a conspirator isn’t named, it could be evidence that they had cooperated with the investigation. Or prosecutors could simply not be ready to charge them yet. (On Tuesday afternoon, Macy turned up in court alongside his lawyer.)
Veteran criminal attorney Murray Richman expressed similar views.
“If there’s no active participation in the wrongdoing, the spouse will not be charged,” he explained. “Mere knowledge, even with the presence, does not constitute criminal conduct.”
“Or, if there is insufficient evidence to necessarily link that spouse to criminal [activity], they will not be charged if it’s mere allegations unsubstantiated with significant proof,” Richman said.
In this kind of situation, Richman said that if prosecutors mention a spouse, but don’t charge the spouse, he or she could still be “an unindicted co-conspirator.”
A former federal prosecutor also told Vulture that the alleged misconduct involving their second daughter might be too vague to bring charges against Macy.
“Just based on their conversation, there’s not enough proof to show he had any knowledge it was illegal,” he said. “Based only on the conversations, the second one, there is also an innocent explanation what he was saying and ultimately, they agree not to do it.”
As for whether the couple’s daughters (who are 19 and 17) would be in legal jeopardy, the former prosecutor also said it would be unlikely for a minor to get charged in this type of scheme, especially “if the parent shields the child from what’s going on.”
“The standards and requirements for the Department of Justice to indict people under 18 are pretty high,” he said.
The couple’s joint publicist did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Huffman’s agent’s office also deferred a request for comment to the publicist.
In an interview with Parade in January, Macy called his daughter’s college admissions process “so stressful,” adding, “I am voting that once she gets accepted, she maybe takes a year off.”
The New York attorney general’s office late on Monday issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank and Investors Bank for records relating to the financing of four major Trump Organization projects and a failed effort to buy the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League in 2014, according to a person briefed on the subpoenas.
The inquiry opens a new front in the scrutiny of Deutsche Bank, one of the few lenders willing to do business with Donald J. Trump in recent years. The bank is already the subject of two congressional investigations and was examined last year by New York banking regulators, who took no action.
The new inquiry, by the office of the attorney general, Letitia James, was prompted by the congressional testimony last month of Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, the person briefed on the subpoenas said. Mr. Cohen testified under oath that Mr. Trump had inflated his assets in financial statements, and Mr. Cohen provided copies of statements he said had been submitted to Deutsche Bank.
The inquiry by Ms. James’s office is a civil investigation, not a criminal one, although its focus and scope were unclear. The attorney general has broad authority under state law to investigate fraud and can fine — or in extreme cases, go to court to try to dissolve — a business that is found to have engaged in repeated illegality.
The request to Deutsche Bank sought loan applications, mortgages, lines of credit and other financing transactions in connection with the Trump International Hotel in Washington; the Trump National Doral outside Miami; and the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, the person said.
Investigators also requested records connected to an unsuccessful effort to buy the Bills, the person said. Mr. Trump gave Deutsche Bank bare-bones personal financial statements in 2014 when he planned to make a bid for the team, The New York Times has reported. The deal fell through when the team was sold to a rival bidder for $1.4 billion.
Mr. Trump worked with a small United States-based unit of Deutsche Bank that serves ultra-wealthy people. The unit lent Mr. Trump more than $100 million in 2012 to pay for the Doral golf resort and $170 million in 2015 to transform the Old Post Office Building in Washington into a luxury hotel.
New Jersey-based Investors Bank was subpoenaed for records relating to Trump Park Avenue, a project it had backed.
Deutsche Bank and Investors Bank declined to comment. The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.
The subpoenas are a culmination of months of threats from Ms. James that she would aggressively investigate Mr. Trump. In August, referring to the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the 2016 election, she said “the president of the United States has to worry about three things: Mueller, Cohen, and Tish James.”
In her victory speech on the night she was elected in November, she said, “I will be shining a bright light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings, and every dealing, demanding truthfulness at every turn.” The next month, before taking office, she told NBC that “we will use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family.”
Mr. Trump has a rich recent history of grievances against the New York attorney general’s office. Before former Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman resigned amid allegations of assault and abuse against women, he pursued cases against the Trump Foundation and Trump University. Mr. Trump has referred to him as “sleazebag AG Eric Schneiderman” and “Shady Eric.” He also assailed Mr. Schneiderman’s temporary successor, Barbara D. Underwood, and has referred to Ms. James as “yet another AG” who “openly campaigned on a GET TRUMP agenda.”
“Will never be treated fairly by these people — a total double standard of ‘justice,’” he added on Twitter.
In Congress, the House Intelligence Committee has been exploring real estate transactions related to Russia and other foreign interests, including Deutsche Bank loans to the Trump Organization.
Steve Greenberg is sitting at a Cosi in the Loop, eating his first meal of the day, a cup of turkey chili, at 4 one recent afternoon. His phone sits on a stack of manila folders. It dings and dings and dings. Greenberg looks at the screen and impatiently slides the phone away. “These fucking people,” he says. The dings are texts from women who want to get in touch with R. Kelly. “Girls send me pictures,” Greenberg says. ” ‘Hey man, tell R. Kelly I’m in his corner.’ “
Greenberg, a criminal defense attorney, has defended Drew Peterson, the Bolingbrook cop serving a 38-year prison sentence for killing his third wife; and Brian Dugan, serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Now he’s representing Kelly, the Chicago-based R&B singer facing 10 charges of criminal sexual assault involving four women, three of whom were underage. Greenberg met Kelly last summer through someone doing work for the singer. “He and I actually had the discussion that I was going to help if there was litigation in those matters,” Greenberg says, glancing at the dinging phone every few seconds. “And then this all started to fester.”
Greenberg, 58, is one of a rare breed of criminal defense attorney who represents people accused of violent crimes.
The Highland Park native, a divorced father of three, says he always wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer. He witnessed the reality of defending people accused of awful crimes while working in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office during law school. “I was kind of shocked by the inhumanity of the system,” says Greenberg, whose gravelly voice has an oddly comforting timbre. “The callousness of people toward each other and how things were just summarily disposed of so quickly.”
Greenberg says doing what he does requires the ability to focus on the process, not the person or his alleged crime. “You can’t be judgmental,” he says. “It’s not our role to fight crime or make sure people who’ve done bad things go to jail.” Only once did a client acquitted of a serious offense commit another crime; Greenberg declined to represent him for a second time.
If and when that happens, “I would certainly feel bad; I’m human,” he says. “But if you let yourself get invested in the outcome of the case, and what that person does with their life—you can’t do it.” He sometimes has post-trial pep talks with clients: “You caught a break here; make the most of it.” That said, “I’m not a life counselor,” he says.
“The greatest rush in the business is when you know someone is guilty and you win the case,” Greenberg continues. “The worst feeling is when you lose a case and you really think the person is innocent.”
He describes his work as part skill, part theater, fortified with more than a bit of ego. “You have to be confident to stand up in front of a bunch of people and argue many times what’s an extraordinarily difficult position with a straight face,” he says.
A good memory comes in handy, too, as Illinois does not permit depositions in criminal cases. Attorneys have material gathered during investigations, and might have a summary of what a witness told a police officer, but occasionally, what they hear from the witness stand is the first time they’re hearing it. The process requires the ability to listen to information, absorb and synthesize it, and turn it into probing questions. “And you can’t seem shocked, you can’t seem startled,” Greenberg says. “It takes a lot of concentration, but it’s so fun,” he adds, likening a normal workday, no two alike, to an episode of “Law & Order.”
He has turned down clients because they didn’t get along or he thought they’d be high maintenance. Only one prospective client, charged with a triple murder, has ever scared Greenberg, after he commanded the lawyer to win his case. Greenberg declined to represent him.
“A lot of what we do and see is dark,” says Tony Thedford, past president of the Illinois Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, who estimates that only about 100 private attorneys in the state defend people accused of rape, murder and other violent crimes. “Criminal defense attorneys are seen as the bad guys, the ones in cahoots with the client,” he says. In defending accused murderers and rapists, “we are driven by a fear,” he says. “If we don’t do everything we can do, the consequences to our clients might be our fault.”
DEFINING A WIN
For Greenberg, a win means only one thing: His client is acquitted and goes home. He says that he won six jury trials in a row last year; he rattles off a list of a half-dozen clients acquitted of murder whose cases didn’t make headlines. Among the headline-making cases, his success rate is mixed. Peterson, whom Greenberg represented with attorney Joel Brodsky, was convicted. Greenberg represented Dugan for his sentencing; Dugan received the death sentence, which was commuted to life in prison after Illinois abolished the death penalty. In September, a judge vacated the 2018 conviction of Gaege Bethune, tried for the 2014 murder of a fellow Southern Illinois University student; Greenberg became Bethune’s lawyer after the conviction but before sentencing. Greenberg helped overturn the conviction of Arnold Day, accused of murder in 1994. (A judge ruled that Day was tortured into confessing at the hands of Chicago police under the command of former Cmdr. Jon Burge.) In a civil case, Greenberg represented the family of Darius Pinex, who was killed by Chicago police in 2011, in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the city. The family won.
Greenberg “has a reputation as being an aggressive advocate for his clients,” Thedford says. “He’s a good lawyer.” Not everyone agrees. Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti, who has said he is representing one of the people named in R. Kelly’s criminal charges, recently got into a Twitter spat with Greenberg, calling him a “hack criminal lawyer.”
Greenberg grew up in Highland Park. His mother co-owned an art gallery in Wilmette, and his father was a CPA. Greenberg says that as a kid, he constantly got into trouble. “He was definitely strong-willed,” says his sister, Michelle Rapaport. “He didn’t back down easily.” As an adult, he is “funny, loyal to his family and friends, and likes to have a good time,” Rapaport says. “And he works really hard. The kind of student he was, I wouldn’t have pictured him as hardworking as he is as an adult.”
After earning a degree in finance from Indiana University-Bloomington, he headed west with the idea of attending law school and eventually settling in California. His grades weren’t good enough for any of California’s state schools, so he returned to the Midwest to attend law school at Northern Illinois University. He graduated in 1986 and opened his own practice in 1988.
Greenberg says he handles 100 or so cases at a time. His business card, made of thick plastic, has the heft of a credit card. He charges a flat rate, or not, depending on clients’ situations. He says the mother of an accused drug dealer charged with murder told Greenberg she couldn’t retire as a hotel housekeeper until she paid him in full. He says he told her to retire. “I make enough money,” says Greenberg, who owns a Maserati convertible, an Audi and a Prius. “We’re not hungry at my house.” He has a home in Highland Park and an apartment in University Village. For fun, he travels the world—Europe, Asia, the Middle East—to eat, drink and absorb the culture. In nice weather, he hangs out at Tavern on Rush “to people-watch.”
Even though he describes his job as packing “an extraordinarily high level of stress,” he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. “It’s just too much fun, it’s too interesting,” he says. Meanwhile, an unsentimental view of his work helps him cope, and helps him win. “My job is not to hug you, to babysit you or hold your hand except as necessary to get you through the process,” he says. “I have my job, and I’m going to stay in my lane. Right? That’s what I’m going to do.”
WASHINGTON — Recent court filings from special counsel Robert Mueller shed new light on a mysterious payment to lawyers for Paul Manafort, the onetime chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
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The payment, for $125,000, was made in June 2017, halfway through Trump’s first year in office. But it wasn’t disclosed publicly until late last year, when prosecutors accused Manafort in court filings of repeatedly lying to them about where the money actually came from. Manafort was convicted in 2018 of tax evasion and bank fraud, and sentenced in Virginia on Thursday to 47 months in prison. He faces another sentencing next week in Washington, D.C.
In the world of presidential campaign fundraising, where millions of dollars are often raised and spent in a matter of weeks, $125,000 can seem like a drop in the bucket.
But the route this money traveled, from its origin as a donation made to a pro-Trump political group, to its final destination in the bank account of Manafort’s attorney, offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of relationships Manafort built over 40 years in Republican politics.
These relationships have drawn fresh scrutiny in recent weeks. Both Manafort and another key figure in this story, Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, were among 81 individuals and entities that received formal document requests on Monday from the House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating a broad range of potential presidential misdeeds.
The path taken by this $125,000 also highlights the ways that Manafort took advantage of the Trump campaign’s underdeveloped leadership structure to install his allies in top positions across the Trump political landscape.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the murky, loosely regulated world of super PACs and other political “dark money” groups, which are permitted to raise unlimited amounts of money from donors as long as they don’t “coordinate” directly with campaigns, a legal standard that leaves plenty of room for interpretation. In this world, Manafort’s longtime associates could hold key positions, and oversee the raising and spending of huge sums of money, often with little to no direct oversight.
One of these positions was leading a pro-Trump super PAC that Manafort helped to establish in June 2016 called Rebuilding America Now.
To run the group, Manafort tapped an old friend, Connecticut-based lobbyist Laurance “Laury” Gay. A former official in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, Gay went on to work at Manafort’s lobbying firm in the late 1980s. He is also the godfather to one of Manafort’s daughters.
With Manafort’s blessing and Gay at its helm, Rebuilding America Now raised more than $24 million between June and December 2016, more than any other pro-Trump super PAC did during the entire election.
According to the transcript from a Feb. 4 hearing in Manafort’s trial, prosecutors believe that in 2017, Rebuilding America Now under Gay’s leadership also played a central role in what they describe as a “scheme” to provide Manafort with “a way of getting cash” out of his time as the unpaid chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Manafort’s decision to take a volunteer job at the top of Trump’s presidential campaign drew national attention to his lobbying career. By the summer of 2017, Manafort was the target of multiple investigations into his personal finances, campaign work and foreign lobbying.
Faced with mounting legal bills, Manafort reached out to Gay in June of that year and asked him to arrange a $125,000 payment to Manafort’s lawyers, according to both prosecutors and Manafort’s defense attorneys. Rather than give Manafort the money himself, however, Gay called someone else.
“At the request of Paul Manafort, Laury [Gay] asked that funds be forwarded to an entity designated by Mr. Manafort to assist with his legal expenses,” said Anthony J. Iacullo, a criminal defense attorney who represents Gay, in a recent interview with The New York Times.
It’s not clear why Manafort asked for this specific amount. In an emailed response to CNBC, Iacullo said Gay “has not been charged with any wrongdoing nor has he done anything that violates any federal or state laws.” He added that “out of an abundance of caution and respect for the process itself, we decline to comment any further at this time.”
CNBC attempted to reach Gay several times, but the phone at Gay’s Canaan, Connecticut-based consulting firm, Business Strategies & Insight, had been disconnected.
In order to get the $125,000, Gay reached out to someone else, whose name is redacted in court filings. Prosecutors described the person as having “a long relationship” with Manafort. Manafort’s defense attorneys said the person had “been a vendor on all these campaigns [Manafort has] used in the past.”
Crucially, in a January court filing the special counsel also noted that this person ran a firm that had been paid “approximately $19 million” by the super PAC that Gay was running in 2016.
There is only one firm that received anything near $19 million from Rebuilding America Now. And reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that this firm received almost exactly $19 million, leaving little doubt about which firm it was that prosecutors were referring to.
It is a political ad-buying firm called Multi Media Services Corporation, or MMSC, based in Alexandria, Virginia.
At first glance, MMSC appears to be a small, two-man shop with no obvious ties to Manafort or anyone else with whom Manafort has “a long relationship.” Moreover, there are no signs that either of the principals at MMSC was ever “a vendor on all these campaigns [Manafort has] used in the past,” which is how Manafort’s lawyers described the person who ran this firm.
But there is more to MMSC than meets the eye. Interviews and corporate records unearthed by CNBC have revealed that MMSC has a silent owner: Tony Fabrizio, a longtime Manafort associate and the chief pollster on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Fabrizio’s dual role as: a) the owner of MMSC, which was the biggest vendor to the top pro-Trump super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, and b) the Trump campaign’s lead pollster, has not been reported until now.
As for the source of the $125,000, CNBC has also uncovered a compelling detail buried in one of the hundreds of exhibits that Mueller’s prosecutors have entered into the record in the case against Manafort in Washington.
This one appears to be a bank transfer record of the payment itself.
Under the heading “Debit Information” there is a line on the transfer record that reads “Account: MMSC SECONDARY – *7107* – Checking – $132,087.56.”
Again, MMSC is the acronym for Multi Media Services Corporation. Two political operatives who spoke to CNBC referred to the firm by its acronym.
CNBC tried repeatedly over several weeks to reach Fabrizio, but he did not respond to emails or phone messages left for him.
To be clear, at no point in any publicly available filings does Mueller suggest that Fabrizio or MMSC committed any crimes. On the contrary, details that appear to have been provided by Fabrizio are cited frequently as evidence of Manafort’s alleged misdeed: lying to prosecutors about the source of the $125,000.
Manafort’s lawyers deny that he lied. They told the court that he was merely confused or misremembered during each of the three interviews where he told the government three different stories about where the money came from.
Legal experts also told CNBC that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with what Fabrizio appears to have done, namely, use money from a firm he controls to make a payment on someone else’s behalf.
In addition to Fabrizio, Manafort and Gay, CNBC also reached out to former Rebuilding America Now political director Ken McKay, former general counsel Cleta Mitchell and finance director Christina Culver. None responded to emailed questions about the group or about their work for it.
The connection between Fabrizio, Manafort and the money sent to Manafort’s lawyers from MMSC is only the latest chapter in a relationship between the two men that dates back more than 20 years.
In 1996, Fabrizio and Manafort worked together on the failed presidential campaign of former Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole. Then, as in 2016, Manafort was initially brought on board to manage the delegates at the 1996 Republican National Convention, while Fabrizio worked as the Dole campaign’s pollster.
Since then, Fabrizio has also done work for some of Manafort’s most controversial clients. In 2012 and 2013, foreign lobbying records show that Manafort paid Fabrizio $278,000 for work Fabrizio did to help Manafort’s political clients in Ukraine.
Fabrizio’s role in Manafort’s Ukrainian lobbying wasn’t revealed until a year after Trump was elected, however, when Manafort was required to file a foreign agent registration form with the Justice Department. On it, he listed five separate payments to Fabrizio, as well as payments to various other subcontractors.
Three years after they worked together on the Ukraine job, Manafort hired Fabrizio again, in May 2016, this time to work for the Trump presidential campaign.
At the time, Fabrizio’s hiring was greeted with fanfare in Republican circles, where it was viewed as a sign that Trump’s chaotic, bare-bones primary operation was maturing into a national presidential campaign, one capable of taking on the massive machine backing Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, the fact that Trump had hired a pollster at all was newsworthy, coming, as it did, after months of the candidate insisting that political pollsters were a waste of money.
“One of Paul Manafort’s best decisions was hiring Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio to determine how to beat Hillary Clinton,” wrote Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Manafort’s, Trump’s and Fabrizio’s, in his 2017 book, “The Making of a President.”
“In the end, it was the pugnacious and bulldog-like Fabrizio who insisted that the Trump campaign had to expand the map into Wisconsin and Michigan, while doubling down on Pennsylvania,” Stone wrote.
Stone was arrested earlier this year on charges that included lying to Congress about his contacts in 2016 with Wikileaks, which published thousands of emails allegedly stolen from the Clinton campaign by Russian state hackers. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. The charges against Stone are unrelated to the Manafort prosecution, nor do they have anything to do with Fabrizio or Gay.
Two weeks after Manafort hired Fabrizio to poll for the campaign, Manafort and longtime Trump ally Tom Barrack set up the Rebuilding America Now super PAC so they could raise millions at a time from wealthy GOP donors to help Trump, who was reportedly growing tired of spending his own money to fund his campaign.
Five days after Rebuilding America Now was formed on June 2, campaign finance records show that it made its first payment to MMSC, Fabrizio’s ad-buying firm, for a $1 million ad buy. According to prosecutors, Rebuilding America Now hired MMSC “at Manafort’s suggestion.”
The rapid succession of these hirings — first Manafort to chair the campaign, then Fabrizio to poll for the campaign, then Gay to run Rebuilding America Now, then Fabrizio’s ad-buying firm to buy the airtime for Rebuilding America Now — offer a striking example of how Manafort turned his unpaid role on the Trump campaign into an opportunity to secure lucrative work for his longtime associates.
In hindsight, however, this work appears to have come at a high cost to those who did it.
On March 4, Fabrizio was one of more than 80 members of Trump’s extended political and professional orbits to receive a formal letter from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. In it, Nadler wrote that the committee is investigating “allegations of obstruction of justice, public corruption, and abuses of power” by Trump and those around him.
According to the letter, the documents Nadler’s committee is seeking from Fabrizio include anything related to “discussions or attempts to provide or receive election information, campaign data, or campaign communications with, to, or from foreign entities or individuals in connection with the 2016 U.S. Presidential primary or general elections.”
The letter goes on to say: “this includes, but is not limited to, voter data, polling information, political ad targeting, voter registration rolls, social media data, and campaign or party e-mails.”
The special counsel’s interest in hearing from Fabrizio predates the Judiciary Committee’s letter by more than a year, however. In early February 2018, Fabrizio was seen by CNN leaving the special counsel’s office in Washington. The network later confirmed that he had been meeting with members of Mueller’s team.
More recently, court filings in the Manafort case also repeatedly mentioned another interview with an individual who appeared to be Fabrizio, this one conducted on Nov. 6, 2018.
Prosecutors said this individual provided accurate details about the $125,000 payment and how it was arranged, that they were later able to corroborate with text messages and bank records.
The individual also described a financial relationship between MMSC and Rebuilding America Now that was more complicated than it initially appeared in the campaign finance reports that the super PAC submitted to the FEC.
According to the account of the individual who appears to be Fabrizio, Rebuilding America Now agreed to pay Fabrizio’s firm a surprisingly high commission rate, 6 percent, on its media buys during Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The reason for this above-average rate, the person said to prosecutors, was that “half the commission was to be provided to” the head of Rebuilding America Now, in this case, Gay. They also said the commission split “was not reflected in the written contract” between MMSC and Rebuilding America Now.
This wasn’t the first time that questions had come up about the commission rates Rebuilding America Now was paying for its ad buys.
During the 2016 presidential race, potential donors to the PAC also reportedly questioned the rates, along with other elements of Rebuilding America Now’s spending.
“The main question is where the money is going,” an attendee at a Rebuilding America Now fundraising meeting during the Republican National Convention told CNN in the summer of 2016. During that meeting, specific questions were also raised “about the super PAC’s commission rates,” the attendee said.
Commission rates on political ad buys are particularly difficult to track, because campaigns and groups like Rebuilding America Now are not required to report them separately from the money they spend to air the ads themselves.
So, for example, if a super PAC reported an expense of $20 million paid to an ad-buying firm, it would be impossible to tell how much of that money went to the firm as commissions, and how much of it was actually spent to buy airtime.
But “if Gay and Rebuilding America Now knew that 3 percent of all commissions paid to Multi Media Services Corporation would be routed back to Gay, those transactions should have been reported to the FEC as payments to Gay” and not merely as commissions to MMSC, said Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the nonprofit watchdog group The Campaign Legal Center.
Federal campaign finance law requires that PACs, like political campaigns, accurately report their expenditures to the FEC.
“If a payment is made to one vendor with the intention that it be directed to another person or subvendor, and that recipient isn’t disclosed, then the committee has violated the law” by failing to disclose their expenditures accurately, Fischer said.
Gay’s attorney declined to respond to questions about the commission split from CNBC, as did Fabrizio.
But the alleged existence of a secret commission split wasn’t the only thing about the relationship between MMSC and Rebuilding America Now that experts said raises questions about where donors’ money was actually ending up.
In May 2017, six months after Trump had won the presidency and Rebuilding America Now had stopped buying ads on TV, campaign finance records show that Fabrizio’s ad-buying firm, MMSC, made three large cash transfers to Rebuilding America Now.
The first was on May 27, for $150,000, according to campaign finance records, which detail all these payments and their dates, sources, amounts and recipients. Three weeks later, on June 15, MMSC again transferred money to its former client, only this time it was a much larger amount: $625,000. The very next day, June 16, it transferred $25,000 to Rebuilding America Now, for a total of $800,000 from the ad-buying firm to the super PAC in a little under a month.
And not just any month. This was the month leading up to the mysterious $125,000 payment to Paul Manafort’s attorneys. That payment, from the account labeled MMSC – Secondary, occurred on June 26, precisely 10 days after the third and last payment from the firm to the PAC.
Records show that Rebuilding America Now reported the $800,000 it received in May and June as media reimbursements. This helps to explain why the money does not appear to have raised any red flags so far with the FEC, even though several other aspects of the PAC’s finances have prompted the FEC to formally request additional information or corrections.
Ad-buying firms frequently reimburse clients after elections for any money that doesn’t ultimately get spent by the firm on ads. This payment is called a reconciliation, and it’s usually made as soon as possible, and it’s precise down to the dollar, said Barbara Kittridge, the founder of Motive LLC, a political media-buying and strategy firm in Washington.
“January is what we media buyers call ‘audit season,’ where we go back through all our ad contracts from the previous year and carefully match the money that was paid with the actual ads that were run. If there’s any money that wasn’t spent, it’s returned to the client right away,” she said.
“Typically, ad-buying contracts require that reconciliations be paid somewhere between 15 and 45 days after the end of either the campaign or the calendar year. Six months is some of the longest I’ve ever seen for a repayment,” Kittridge said.
“It’s also odd to see even numbers” like $150,000 and $25,000 in ad reconciliations, she added. “Depending upon the channel that you’re purchasing ads on, it’s not typical that your costs are that even.”
Interestingly, several months before MMSC returned exactly $800,000 to Gay’s super PAC in the summer of 2017, campaign filings show that the firm made a different reimbursement payment to Rebuilding America Now, one that Kittridge said looked much more like a typical ad reconciliation than the later amounts did.
On Feb. 10, 2017, five weeks after the end of the fourth quarter, MMSC transferred $347,505 back to its client, Rebuilding America Now. Campaign legal experts said the transfer matches what media reconciliations typically look like, because it happened quickly and it was for a very precise amount.
“This reimbursement would be more normative, from both a timing perspective and from an amount perspective,” said Kittridge.
Yet the same qualities that make the February payment appear run-of-the-mill, experts said, are what make the May and June payments look so unusual.
“Six months after the election, with big round numbers, are definitely more suspect,” Kittridge said.
“I have never seen such large reimbursement payments coming so long after the election for which the ads were created. It strains credulity well beyond the breaking point to believe that these payments are reimbursement for unaired general election ads,” said a campaign finance lawyer who has been practicing before the FEC for 30 years, and who requested anonymity to discuss an issue that could come before the commission.
CNBC attempted to reach Fabrizio, as well as MMSC’s president, Dwight Sterling, and its media director, Neal McDonald, for several weeks to ask them about these unusual reimbursements. None responded to phone messages or emails.
Yet one thing is clear from the PAC’s financial reports: In the year that followed these three unusual cash transfers from Fabrizio’s firm to Rebuilding America Now, no one took home more of that money from the PAC, in consulting fees and expenses, than Laurance Gay.
Gay first entered Trump’s orbit in April 2016 as a high-level campaign volunteer, one of several lobbyists Manafort recruited to help him professionalize the Trump campaign as it became increasingly likely Trump would be the Republican nominee. But Gay and Manafort’s professional relationship dates back to long before there was ever a Trump campaign.
In the 1980s, Gay worked with Manafort and Stone at their lobbying firm, Black, Stone, Manafort & Kelly. Gay is also reportedly the godfather to one of Manafort’s daughters.
During the 2016 campaign, Gay touted his personal and professional relationship with Manafort as one of the major assets Rebuilding America Now had that other pro-Trump super PACs did not.
“The advantage that we bring, without compromising any of the boundaries, is we know how Manafort thinks. I’ve done over 40 campaigns with Paul,” Gay told Politico in the summer of 2016.
For Gay, his relationship with Manafort would also prove to be extremely lucrative. Between June 2016 and June 2018, Gay collected just over $1 million in consulting fees from Rebuilding America Now.
More than three-quarters of that, a total of $775,000, was paid to Gay after 2016, and after Rebuilding America Now had shed staff and stopped running TV ads for Trump.
During that same two-year period, Gay collected another $254,000 in travel reimbursements from the super PAC. Again, the majority of this money, $149,164.03, came after 2016 was over.
Added together, the expenses and fees that Gay took home from Rebuilding America Now in the 18 months after 2016 equaled $924,164.03. This is very close to the combined total of $925,000 that was paid to the super PAC and Manafort’s lawyers ($800,000 to the PAC plus $125,000 to Manafort’s lawyers) by Fabrizio’s firm, MMSC, in May and June 2017.
In June 2018, Rebuilding America Now’s travel expenses caught the attention of the FEC. In a letter to Rebuilding America Now’s treasurer, Ryan Call, the FEC asked him to explain the $42,286 the group had paid to Gay for “Travel” during the first three months of 2018. The FEC gave the group until Aug. 2, 2018, to reply, but so far it has not responded to the request.
By this point, more than a year after Trump was elected, Rebuilding America Now appeared to be operating as little more than a meme-posting operation on Facebook and Twitter, trying to engage Trump supporters with “Like if you agree!” style posts.
Facebook ad records show that in the spring and summer of 2018, Rebuilding America Now ran a series of ads on Facebook. They asked viewers to “Like” posts if, for instance, they “think Hillary [Clinton] should be behind bars,” and “think CNN sucks.”
Yet despite spending money to buy Facebook ads, to pay Gay $35,000 a month and to pay other consultants and lawyers, Rebuilding America Now effectively stopped raising any money after the 2016 election, and only spent money.
Between June 2017, when the PAC received the last of the three unusual transfers from MMSC, to October 2018, when Palm Beach real estate developer Llwyd Ecclestone gave the group $25,000, campaign finance records show that Gay did not raise any money at all.
Ecclestone’s gift came long after the PAC had effectively gone dormant. He did not respond to an email from CNBC on Friday asking what prompted him to donate $25,000 to the group more than two years after he had last given it any money and months after Rebuilding America Now had stopped doing anything more than posting photos online.
Now, it barely even does that. Rebuilding America Now’s Twitter account posted its last tweet on Oct. 10, 2018. And the PAC’s website was taken down sometime in the fall, although it is difficult to tell precisely when.
As of March 6, the Rebuilding America Now Facebook page was still active, however, and it linked to the nonexistent website. CNBC sent a message to the Facebook page but has received no response.
While the name of Rebuilding America Now may have faded from the pro-Trump political landscape, Gay’s name has re-emerged in the news in recent weeks. This time it is in connection with a different pro-Trump entity that is currently under investigation: Trump’s presidential inaugural committee, or PIC.
Bloomberg News recently identified Gay as having been in charge of the ticketing operation for Trump’s inaugural events. This appeared to be the first time Gay had been identified by name as having had an official role in Trump’s inauguration.
“Gay didn’t have any known experience managing invitations, according to three people familiar with his role,” Bloomberg reported.
Prosecutors in both New York and New Jersey have reportedly opened preliminary investigations into Trump’s inaugural committee, including whether foreign nationals who attended inaugural events made prohibited donations to the committee by using “straw man” donors to hide their participation.
Gay was not the only member of Manafort’s inner circle working on core elements of Trump’s inauguration. Manafort’s longtime right-hand man, Rick Gates, was the deputy chairman of the inaugural committee, working directly under Barrack, the inaugural committee’s billionaire chairman.
The revelation that Gay was working alongside Gates at the inaugural committee serves as yet another example of how far Manafort’s reach into the Trump campaign continued to extend, months after Manafort himself had been fired from the campaign in August.
Gates was indicted in late 2017 along with Manafort, and charged with failing to disclose foreign lobbying and tax evasion. He has since pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and lying to the FBI, and he has cooperated with prosecutors and testified against Manafort in court.
Gay’s attorney declined to comment in response to questions from CNBC about Gay’s work for the inaugural committee.