AP may have led FBI to Manafort storage unit

Paul Manafort’s lawyers are so concerned he might not have a fair trial that they could ask for a location change before a Northern Virginia jury considers the lobbyist-turned-Trump-campaign-chairman’s alleged tax- and banking-related crimes at the end of July.

The possibility came up during a discussion in court Friday about whether Justice Department and FBI officials had leaked grand jury or other investigative secrets to the media. If they had, and if information in the leaks was untrue, that could unfairly bias members of a jury, Manafort’s lawyers have said.

Manafort’s attorneys didn’t say Friday whether they would indeed ask to move the trial, though federal Judge T.S. Ellis strongly suggested they do if they wanted to keep pressing prosecutors about leaks. He said he wouldn’t dismiss the case because of the leaks accusation and that he might consider sanctioning government investigators and prosecutors. But before Ellis would even get to that, defense lawyers must try to convince him there’s reason to believe leaks happened.

“I’m not going to have a hearing on the leaks (before the trial). You used the word ‘satiated’ (about media coverage),” Ellis told Manafort lawyer Kevin Downing. “Prove it.”

Manafort, who has maintained his innocence, is set to go on trial July 25 in the Alexandria courthouse.

Ellis was skeptical enough to not wade into a full-blown discussion of the leaks accusation Friday.

Still, it slipped into an FBI agent’s testimony in court as both sides argued another issue in the case, about the raid of Manafort’s storage unit — the other main topic of the hearing.

Meeting with the press

The storage unit search on May 26 last year has become an issue because Manafort’s team claims that a personal assistant to Manafort didn’t have a right to let the FBI inside the space. The search thus may have violated his Fourth Amendment protections against unfair searches and seizures, Manafort’s team says.

As part of the proceedings, FBI agent Jeff Pfeiffer, who first entered the storage space with the personal assistant over last year’s Memorial Day weekend, took the witness stand.

He said he had learned about the existence of the storage unit during a meeting with Associated Press reporters a month earlier.

The news organization was investigating Manafort and had met with the FBI and Department of Justice. The federal investigators took the meeting so they could learn information from the reporters, Pfeiffer said, but provided them with no comments about their work.

The AP said in a statement on Friday, “Associated Press journalists met with representatives from the Department of Justice in an effort to get information on stories they were reporting, as reporters do. During the course of the meeting, they asked DOJ representatives about a storage locker belonging to Paul Manafort, without sharing its name or location.”

Yet Manafort’s lawyers have zeroed in the possibility investigators leaked details to the reporters.

At the end of the meeting, Manafort’s attorney Tom Zehnle said, the AP representative asked if the federal investigators could say they were on the right track.

The AP was “advised they had a good understanding” of Manafort’s business situation, Zehnle said, reading from evidence.

The day after the meeting with the feds in April 2017, the AP published an exclusive story about Manafort’s “black ledger,” a handwritten accounting of payments he received from pro-Russian Ukrainians.

After the meeting, investigators sought to contact associates of Manafort, including the personal assistant, Alexander Trusko, who led them to the storage unit. Trusko had signed the unit’s lease agreement years earlier on behalf of Manafort and had a key. The FBI saw the boxes and file cabinet inside, then got a search warrant from a judge to seize the records.

Earlier this week, court documents showed investigators swept the space because they believed the records would show Manafort’s financial and legal ties to powerful Ukrainians and Russians for whom he worked. The special counsel’s office said in recent months that they wanted any details about contact Manafort had with Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians, for their investigation into whether he colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.

Ellis will have to decide whether to throw out the evidence seized in the storage unit search, and in a separate search of Manafort’s Alexandria condominium. He did not make decisions on Friday.

A federal judge in DC already told the prosecutors they could use evidence from both searches for Manafort’s Washington trial in September, in which he faces charges of conspiracy to launder money, foreign lobbying violations and witness tampering.

Manafort in person

Manafort did not appear in person Friday. While his wife was in the courtroom, Manafort is being held in a solitary cell in Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia.

This would have been the first time he appeared since a DC judge revoked his bail two weeks ago. Manafort likely would have appeared in the courtroom clad in a jail-issued jumpsuit, rather than his typical pinstripe business suit, as is standard in federal proceedings before a judge outside of a jury trial.

But his lawyers said earlier this week that the two hours of travel each way from the jail to the Alexandria courthouse would be excessive. The judge agreed Manafort didn’t have to come to court Friday, as is his right.

Late Thursday night, Manafort appealed to a higher court in DC for his release from jail before trial.

His detention “gravely impairs” his ability to prepare for trial, Manafort says in his appeal.