Law firm’s Ukraine work, tied to Manafort, under scrutiny

WASHINGTON — Five years ago, Paul Manafort arranged for a prominent New York-based law firm to draft a report that was used by allies of his client, Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned president of Ukraine, to justify the jailing of a political rival. The report is coming back to haunt the firm.

The Justice Department, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation, recently asked the firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, for information and documents related to its work on behalf of Yanukovych’s government, which crumbled after he fled to Russia under pressure.

The request comes at a time Manafort, his work for Yanukovych’s party and for Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs as well as the handling of payments for that work have become focal points in the investigation of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and connections between Russia, President Donald Trump and his associates.

It’s unclear if the Justice Department’s request to Skadden, as the firm is known, is part of Mueller’s inquiry. But the interest from prosecutors in what Skadden did for the Ukrainian government is one indication of the wide-ranging nature of the inquiries related to Manafort. It also highlights the risks associated with advising authoritarian governments overseas, a lucrative sideline among Washington lawyers, lobbyists and public-relations consultants.

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The report was concluded in September 2012 — just before one of Manafort’s daughters started work as an associate at Skadden — and released in December 2012.

The day after its release, Victoria Nuland, a State Department official at the time, called it “incomplete,” at a department press briefing, saying it “doesn’t give an accurate picture.” She said the State Department was concerned that “Skadden Arps lawyers were obviously not going to find political motivation if they weren’t looking for it.”

In a recent interview, John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, went further. He said that Skadden “should have been ashamed” of the report, calling it “a nasty piece of work.”

Craig declined to comment.

Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, anyone engaged in lobbying or public relations for foreign governments must register with the Justice Department. But in a statement this month, Skadden contended that “none of our attorneys engaged in any activity that required them or the firm to register under FARA.”

The firm also asserted that its report “did not opine about whether the prosecution was politically motivated or driven by an improper political objective” — an assertion that narrowly avoids directly contradicting the report’s conclusion that “Tymoshenko has not provided clear and specific evidence of political motivation that would be sufficient to overturn her conviction under American standards.”

Rather, the firm’s statement said that Tymoshenko “was denied basic rights under Western legal standards,” was “improperly incarcerated during the trial” and that “in the West, she would receive a new trial.”

In June, Skadden refunded $567,000 to the Ukrainian government — about half of the total it was said to have been paid by Yanukovych’s government. The firm suggested in a statement that it returned the cash because the money had been placed “in escrow for future work” that never took place.

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