Sides issues in Manafort case leave judge exasperated
Washington – U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson was not amused.
A lawyer for Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, was trying to justify the multimillion-dollar value of his client’s home as part of a bail package. Rather than producing tax assessment or property records, the lawyer submitted to the judge a printout from Zillow, the online real estate website.
“Zillow is actually considered to be pretty accurate, Your Honor,” said Kevin Downing, Manafort’s attorney. Jackson swatted that aside, insisting she needed “something, some piece of paper beyond just what I got.”
On many days, the high-profile, high-stakes prosecution of Manafort – a case already outside the central election-meddling focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation – is mired in side issues that have left the judge exasperated.
Whatever Manafort’s strategy, his team’s efforts appear largely reflective of the former international consultant’s frustration with what he sees as an out-of-control prosecution – and a burdensome house arrest from which his attorneys, despite several attempts, have been unable to free him. The halting pace of the case in Washington is about to face another obstacle: With new charges filed in Virginia, Manafort is now going to have to balance a wholly separate case with a different judge and possibly another trial.
Lawyer Downing and Judge Jackson have clashed over the attorney’s provocative public statements, Manafort’s own ghostwritten opinion piece in Ukraine and even the format of the court filings submitted by the defense. There were also weeks of requests by Rick Gates, Manafort’s recently flipped co-defendant, to attend his children’s sporting events, disputes over his involvement in a friend’s fundraiser and multiple defense lawyer substitutions.
“We’ve been dealing with the minutiae of bond and soccer practice and public relations and people changing their minds about where they want to live and unsettled questions concerning representation since October, and it’s unacceptable,” Jackson recently said, lamenting to lawyers that they hadn’t yet set a trial date.
Separately, as the pre-trial doings proceed, Manafort is suing special counsel Mueller, accusing him of overstepping by indicting him for conduct “unmoored” from the Russian interference. Manafort is accused of acting as an unregistered foreign agent and orchestrating an international money laundering conspiracy to hide millions of dollars he earned from his foreign political work in eastern Europe.
Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni took more shots at the prosecution’s fairness last week, suggesting its tactics violated Manafort’s constitutional rights. And after Gates’ guilty plea, Manafort himself waded into the debate despite Jackson’s gag order, maintaining his innocence against “untrue piled-up charges.”
Attacking the prosecution is common in cases like this, but former Justice Department prosecutor David Weinstein said judges shouldn’t be antagonized.
“If you continue to thumb your nose at the system itself,” he said, “that’s going to have a negative effect on the way the judge treats any statements you make.”
Downing did not return a message seeking comment. Maloni declined comment.
Tensions surfaced from the first court appearance last October, when Downing, a former Justice Department lawyer and an imposing courtroom presence with pinstripe suits and well-coiffed hair, exited the courthouse into a sea of news cameras to proclaim his client’s innocence.
“There is no evidence,” Downing declared in a message that echoed the president’s own oft-repeated contention, “that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.”
Among those who heard the message was the judge, who three days later scolded the lawyers.
“This is a criminal trial, and it is not a public relations campaign,” she said in the first of a series of tense courtroom encounters. “So I want to make it clear, from this point on, that I expect counsel to do their talking in this courtroom and in their pleadings, and not on the courthouse steps.”
Just weeks later, the issue arose again when prosecutors revealed that Manafort, from the confines of house arrest, had helped ghostwrite an opinion piece on his foreign consulting that was slated to be published in an English-language newspaper in Ukraine. Compounding the problem, the government said one of Manafort’s collaborators was believed to have ties to Russian intelligence.
Though prosecutors said Downing had assured them he’d take steps to prevent publication, the lawyer insisted his client had done nothing wrong. It’s unfair that Manafort “must simply remain silent while his reputation is battered, and potential jurors in this district might be tainted,” Downing argued.
The op-ed ultimately was published. Prosecutors, demonstrating their ability to monitor Manafort’s actions, tracked each edit he made in a version of the piece they pulled from his email.
Jackson didn’t hold Manafort in contempt but issued a stern warning: Don’t do it again.
Gates also came close himself to running afoul of Jackson’s gag order by appearing via video at a fundraiser organized by a friend who complained of an “unfair prosecution.” Both defendants, Jackson said, needed to use more “common sense.”
Besides adversarial run-ins, there have been curious struggles with document filing – random notes were submitted by Manafort as an appendage to one filing before being withdrawn – and instances in which the judge has said she’s not even sure what defense lawyers are seeking.
Early in the case, Jackson scolded Downing for saying he had filed a bond review motion when he actually had not.
“Don’t tell me if something says something it doesn’t say,” Jackson said.
But no issue has been more contentious, or drawn-out, than Manafort’s bail package.
The lawyers have repeatedly tangled over the value of property Manafort has pledged to meet the $10 million amount – and the lack of documentation the defense team has produced to support its arguments.
That’s where the Zillow printout comes in. In December, Downing submitted it to justify the $4.725 million estimated value for one of Manafort’s homes.
Dismissing the adequacy of the document, Jackson observed, “If you had to sell it tomorrow or insure it tomorrow or refinance it tomorrow, you would get an appraisal, you wouldn’t print out a page from Zillow.”