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Mueller news: Judge rules that Manafort deliberately lied during cooperation

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Evidence suggests that Paul Manafort deliberately lied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team after he had agreed to cooperate, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

After dueling filings and arguments from prosecutors and the defense over the past few months, Judge Amy Berman Jackson sided with Mueller’s team on three of the five areas in which they’d accused Manafort of lying.

Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chair, has already been convicted of financial crimes in Virginia and has pleaded guilty to other charges in Washington. He was not charged with new crimes related to these alleged false statements.

But now, Jackson will take these purported lies during cooperation into account when she sentences Manafort for the DC crimes on March 13 — and they may well spur her to give him a tougher sentence.

The wrangling between Mueller’s and Manafort’s teams about the alleged lies provided a fascinating glimpse into the investigation, revealing both deeper Russian ties and more shady financial behavior from Manafort. We learned that Mueller is claiming:

  • That Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime associate of his who the FBI thinks has “ties to Russian intelligence” (a Mueller prosecutor said this topic goes “very much to the heart of” their larger investigation)
  • That in 2017 and 2018, Manafort worked with Kilimnik to advance to promote a “Ukraine peace plan” (aimed, it seems, at settling the Russia-Ukraine conflict on terms favorable to Russia)
  • That $125,000 paid out from a pro-Trump Super PAC to a political media firm during the campaign was later used to help pay Manafort’s legal fees
  • That Manafort changed his story about a matter another Justice Department office is investigating — one that seems to involve the Trump campaign or administration

Mueller did not, however, use this dispute to give any sort of larger assessment on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia or the president himself.

How we got here

To recap: Manafort was indicted by Mueller in two venues, Virginia and Washington, DC. He was charged with tax violations, bank fraud, lobbying, and false statements — but he was not charged with any crimes related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. Last August, Manafort was convicted at his first trial, in Virginia. Then he struck a plea deal in DC to avert the second trial — and committed to cooperating with the government.

Manafort’s apparent “flip” appeared to be a major turning point in the Mueller investigation. It seemed as if Mueller now had a cooperator who had close ties to both Trump and Russia (the latter because Manafort worked for Ukraine’s pro-Russian political faction for many years).

So from September to November of last year, Manafort was questioned by Mueller’s team a total of 12 times, and also appeared to testify before Mueller’s grand jury twice. He was reportedly asked about a plethora of topics.

But eventually, Mueller’s team concluded that Manafort was repeatedly lying to them — and on November 26, they accused him of breaching his cooperation agreement.

What Mueller and Manafort’s attorneys have been arguing over

Because of the way the plea deal was structured, Manafort’s guilty plea and the related forfeiture of much of his wealth remained in place.

But Manafort’s team did dispute that he had deliberately lied, arguing that there was a combination of memory failures and mix-ups from Manafort and misunderstandings from the special counsel’s team.

Now, the government only had to meet a very low bar to find Manafort in breach of the agreement — basically, they just had to come to the good-faith conclusion that he lied.

However, the judge overseeing Manafort’s case in DC, Amy Berman Jackson, had her own reasons for wanting more details. She said she wanted to assess the government’s evidence about these alleged lies, because she wanted to weigh this as a factor in Manafort’s sentencing. (Meaning she might want to give Manafort a harsher sentence if she was convinced he lied.)

So in a series of partially redacted filings and then at a sealed hearing on February 3, prosecutors and the defense squared off, with Mueller’s team arguing that there was a pattern of deliberate lies from Manafort, and the defense claiming it was all a series of misunderstandings and unintentional misstatements.

An important technical note is that Jackson did not have to find that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Manafort lied, the traditional standard for criminal conviction by a jury. She only had to rule on whether “a preponderance of the evidence” suggested Manafort lied — a lighter standard. The alternative was to rule that Mueller had “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence” that Manafort lied.

Five topics where Mueller accused Manafort of lying

To make the case that Manafort lied during cooperation, Mueller’s team singled out five topics in particular.

None of the topics, so far as we know, directly involve President Donald Trump. In particular, the infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer that Manafort attended is absent from the list. Roger Stone, Manafort’s longtime friend, is also not mentioned. We should not necessarily read too much into these omissions, though — Mueller’s team made clear that the five were not necessarily the only topics Manafort lied about. They are:

1) The $125,000 payment: In 2016, Manafort had helped set up a pro-Trump Super PAC and installed a longtime friend to run it. That Super PAC paid millions to a political ad-buying firm — and that firm then used $125,000 to help pay Manafort’s legal bills in 2017. Manafort then told Mueller’s team three different stories about where that money came from.

What was going on here? Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann offered an “educated guess” during last week’s hearing. Though the details are redacted, he seemed to be suggesting there was a kickback “scheme” of some kind involved, potentially involving Manafort himself. If true, would potentially mean that Manafort was siphoning off money donated to Trump’s Super PAC.

Weissmann said he wasn’t certain of this, but he was certain that Manafort kept lying about the payment. Manafort’s team argued his story didn’t change all that much.

Judge Berman Jackson ruled in Mueller’s favor here.

2) Conspiring with Kilimnik to tamper with witnesses: Last June, Mueller charged Manafort and Kilimnik (the associate with purported ties to Russian intelligence) of conspiring to obstruct justice. He accused the pair of encouraging witnesses to give a false story regarding their work for the former government of Ukraine. And when Manafort struck his plea deal a few months later, he admitted this charge was true.

However, Mueller’s team says that after the deal was struck, Manafort backtracked on this story and told them that Kilimnik did not actually knowingly commit a crime. Here, Weissmann suggests, Manafort “went out of his way” to “not want to provide any evidence that could be used with respect to Mr. Kilimnik.”

After Manafort had a discussion with his lawyers, though, he reverted to the story he told during his plea deal. So the defense claimed this was a misunderstanding that was quickly corrected.

Judge Berman Jackson sided with Manafort’s team here, finding that the special counsel’s office “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence” that Manafort lied here.

3) Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik from 2016 to 2018: Mueller’s team said that between 2016 and 2018, Manafort had a series of interactions with Kilimnik regarding a supposed “peace plan” for Ukraine, and that Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik in 2016. Many of these details are redacted (and we only know it’s about polling data because of a redaction error by Manafort’s lawyers).

But in a tantalizing statement, Weissmann told the judge that an August 2, 2016, meeting between Manafort and Kilimnik “goes to the larger view of what we think is going on” and “goes to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating.” It’s a meeting of the sitting Trump campaign chair “at an unusual time” with someone the FBI thinks has “a relationship with Russian intelligence,” Weissmann said.

The purpose of the “peace plan,” it seems, would have been to help settle the Russia-Ukraine conflict on terms favorable to Russia, and then allow the lifting of sanctions on Russia.

Initially, Manafort said he only briefly discussed this with Kilimnik, in 2016, but dismissed it as a bad idea. But Weissmann says the evidence was in favor of the idea and continued to work with Kilimnik on it all the way up to early 2018.

Then there’s the sharing of the polling data with Kilimnik, who then shared it elsewhere. Manafort’s motivation here remains unclear — was he currying favor with oligarchs in hopes of future business, or was he sharing data that could inform Russia’s election interference efforts? (Manafort’s team disputed that he shared the data at all and said Rick Gates, a Mueller cooperator, was making this up.)

Judge Berman Jackson ruled in Mueller’s favor here.

4) Another DOJ investigation: Weissmann said Manafort also provided information relevant to a (redacted) investigation carried out by another Justice Department office — but, again, changed his story to get a particular person off the hook. We don’t know what this is about, but references in the hearing transcript suggest it relates to the Trump campaign or administration somehow. Judge Berman Jackson ruled in Mueller’s favor here.

5) Indirect contacts with the Trump administration: Mueller’s team said Manafort claimed never to have been in direct or even indirect contact with any sitting Trump administration official, but that at the very least, there had been some indirect contacts. (Manafort’s team said they were misconstruing some communications.)

Judge Berman Jackson sided with Manafort’s team here, finding that the special counsel’s office “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence” that Manafort lied here.

What does it all mean?

For one, Manafort’s plea deal clearly wasn’t the game-changing Mueller probe development that some hoped for. Prosecutors have made clear they think he was of no real use as a witness, and that they think he was still hiding the truth from them on many topics.

But the back-and-forth has revealed new areas of the investigation. In particular, the accusation that Manafort shared private Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign is arguably the closest Mueller has come to alleging outright collusion.

Still, there are are a variety of potential explanations for what happened there. Manafort could have handed over the data without Trump’s knowledge — or with it. Manafort could have handed it over in hopes of impressing wealthy Ukrainian patrons — or he could have been providing data that would aid the Russian government’s election interference efforts.

As for Manafort’s own future, it’s been widely speculated that he’s hoping for a pardon from President Trump, and Mueller’s team even said in court that this could be a potential motivation for his false statements. Trump has conspicuously declined to rule out such a move.

For now, though, the former Trump campaign manager remains in jail, where he’s resided for eight months. His sentencing in Washington will take place on March 13, and his sentencing in Virginia currently has no scheduled date.


For more on the Mueller probe, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Trump-Russia investigation.

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Oakland teachers strike: Union calls strike for pay, smaller classes

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Teacher frustration keeps spreading.

Public school teachers in Oakland, California, said they will strike on Thursday, following 18 months of tense negotiations with district officials over pay raises and classroom sizes.

“We have had it. Enough is enough, bargaining with our school district has not worked,” said Keith Brown, a middle school teacher and president of the Oakland Education Association, during a press conference on Saturday. “Our schools have been starved of resources for years.”

If they don’t reach a deal before Thursday, about 3,000 teachers won’t show up to work in one of the state’s largest school districts, which has struggled from years of budget cuts and poor student performance.

Teachers say the lack of investment in city schools is hurting student performance. The cost of living in Oakland has also skyrocketed in recent years, due to an influx of high-skilled workers unable to afford housing across the bay in San Francisco, making it impossible for teachers to live there on their current salaries, Keith said. Teachers want a pay raise, smaller class sizes, and more counselors and nurses.

The strike in Oakland would come a month after teachers in Los Angeles walked off the job with similar demands — and ended up getting a lot of what they wanted. At the time, LA officials said the same thing Oakland officials are now saying: We just don’t have the money.

Oakland schools are facing a $56 million budget deficit in the next two years, so the school board wants to cut school spending, not increase it. School officials are trying to get more money from the state, but teachers are ready to walk out. And they know they have leverage.

It’s just the latest strike in what’s becoming a national trend. More than 100,000 public school teachers in six states have walked out of class in the past year, rebelling from years of stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, and deep budget cuts to education. The strikes in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, California, and Colorado had broad public support, forcing state lawmakers to raise pay and fueling a national movement to boost investment in public education.

So far, that momentum shows no signs of slowing down.

Funding for public schools in California is a mess

Oakland teachers share a lot of the same frustrations that led LA teachers to walk out of class in January. They say school districts are spending too much money on privately run charter schools that have little public oversight. They also believe they are paid too little working in a state with much wealth.

California is among states spending the least on each student (adjusted for the cost of living), largely because of the state’s strict limits on property tax rates.

The Oakland Education Association, a labor union representing 3,000 educators, has been trying to negotiate a new contract since the last one expired in 2017. Teachers want a 12 percent pay raise over three years, smaller classes, and more support staff. One school counselor for every 600 students is not conducive to a student’s success, says Keith Brown, the group’s president.

The district has offered a 5 percent raise over three years.

Teachers rejected the offer.

“Unless there are dramatic changes to the district’s approach, including spending more money on students and for nurses and counselors, lower class size, and a living wage that will keep Oakland teachers in the classrooms, we will strike,” Brown said.

The school district has said it is willing to keep negotiating for a better deal to avert the strike, and would consider some recommendations from an independent panel, which found that low teacher pay, large class sizes, and school privatization were hurting Oakland schools. The report also acknowledges the state’s “complicated, flawed” system for funding public education.

“Despite our challenges, we are prepared with a comprehensive proposal to reach an agreement. If both sides are committed to settling the contract before a strike occurs —and we are — an agreement can certainly be reached without disrupting the educational experience for students, families and staff,” Oakland Schools Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said in a statement Saturday.

They have three days to try and reach a deal.

Teachers are leading a national workers revolt

A record number of US workers went on strike or stopped working in 2018 because of labor disputes with employers, according to new data released last week by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A total of 485,000 employees were involved in major work stoppages last year — the highest number since 1986, when flight attendants, garbage collectors, and steelworkers walked off the job.

Frustrated public school teachers were behind the year’s largest walkouts, but hotel housekeepers and steelworkers also organized strikes that lasted for days.

There are no signs that worker angst has subsided. So far, in 2019, teachers in two major cities have launched their own strikes. And in January, the Los Angeles teachers strike shut down the nation’s second-largest school district for more than a week.

As part of their deal with city officials, teachers agreed to a 6 percent raise and slightly fewer students in each classroom, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a labor union that represents about 34,000 public school teachers, nurses, librarians, and support staff in the city.

Last week, more than 2,000 teachers in Denver went on strike for three days. The school district ended up giving educators and extra $23 million in pay and agreed to overhaul the compensation system, which relied heavily on annual bonuses.

Now Oakland teachers are prepared to walk out, and Sacramento teachers may follow.

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Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign: news and updates

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