Former President Barack Obama’s top White House lawyer was indicted Thursday on two counts of lying to federal investigators about his dealings with a foreign government and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Gregory B. Craig, who served as White House counsel in 2009 and 2010, is the first prominent Democrat to be ensnared in charges spun out of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
He will be arraigned Friday afternoon at a Washington federal court.
A federal grand jury in Washington lodged the felony indictment against Mr. Craig for making false statements to Mr. Mueller and the Justice Department’s national security investigators about his lobbying efforts on behalf of Ukraine. The charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Federal prosecutors said Mr. Craig should have registered as a foreign agent, saying his contacts with reporters on behalf of a Ukrainian official skirted foreign lobbying laws. Mr. Craig does not face charges of violating the Foreign Registration Act because the law’s five-year statute of limitations has expired.
“The purpose of the scheme was for Craig to avoid registration as an agent of Ukraine,” prosecutors said.
Mr. Craig’s legal team said Thursday the indictment is “unfair and misleading.”
They said their client did not perform any activity that required registration.
While at the law firm of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom in 2012, Mr. Craig was tapped by then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to write a report justifying the government’s prosecution of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Yanukovych political rival.
Prosecutors say Mr. Craig failed to register as a lobbyist because he feared it would be revealed that a “private wealthy” Ukrainian paid $4 million for the supposedly independent report, thus damaging its credibility.
If word got out that the report was an effort to whitewash Ms. Tymoshenko’s prosecution, prosecutors said, it would have hurt the ability of Mr. Craig and others at his law firm to go back into government work later.
Manafort used the report as an effort to improve Mr. Yanukovych’s image in the U.S. and abroad.
Ukrainian officials claimed they only paid $12,000 for the report, but prosecutors said the $4 million ultimately made its way to Skadden through Manafort’s illegal offshore accounts.
In January, Skadden reached a settlement with the Justice Department, admitting that it should have registered for its work. It also agreed to turn over the $4.6 million in fees it collected for the report in exchange for the Justice Department dropping criminal charges.
As part of the settlement, Skadden admitted that it relied upon Mr. Craig’s “false and misleading oral and written statements” when it concluded it did not need to register.
Federal prosecutors say Mr. Craig was aware of the registration requirements, citing two emails in which he asked one of the report’s authors about it.
“I don’t want to register as a foreign agent under FARA. I think we don’t have to with this assignment, yes?” he wrote in a February 2012 email.
In 2013, the Justice Department sent Skadden a letter informing Mr. Craig that his work on the report required him to register as a foreign lobbyist. Prosecutors say Mr. Craig provided false information to Skadden’s legal counsel to rebuff those requests, according to the indictment.
When Manafort was being investigated in October 2017, Mr. Craig repeated his misleading statements about why he didn’t need to register as a foreign lobbyist.
Manafort was sentenced last month to 7 1/2 years in prison for foreign lobbying violations and financial crimes.
Mr. Craig is the second Skadden lawyer who worked on the report to face charges stemming from the Mueller probe. Alex van der Zwaan, who worked out of the firm’s London office, last year admitted lying to the FBI. He received 30 days in prison and was deported to the United Kingdom once his sentence was complete.
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