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Judge tosses Manafort suit challenging special counsel

Chad Day
Associated Press

Washington – A federal judge in Washington on Friday threw out a civil lawsuit brought by President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman that sought to challenge the authority of the special counsel in the Russia investigation.

The decision was a blow to Paul Manafort’s defense against numerous charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller and a rejection of his use of a civil case to attack his criminal prosecution. It was the first of Manafort’s challenges to Mueller’s authority. He has made similar arguments in moving to dismiss the two criminal cases against him.

In her 24-page ruling , U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who also presides in one of Manafort’s criminal cases, rejected his request for an order protecting him from future prosecutions by Mueller’s team.

“A civil case is not the appropriate vehicle for taking issue with what a prosecutor has done in the past or where he might be headed in the future,” Jackson wrote, saying that it was well-established law that a court shouldn’t use its powers in a civil case to interfere in a criminal investigation when a defendant has the ability to challenge the prosecution in a criminal case.

Jackson stressed, though, that her order in the civil case does not address the pending motions in Manafort’s criminal cases and “should not be read as expressing any opinion” about the merits of those arguments. Jackson said she will issue a separate order in the criminal case in which she presides at a later date.

Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for Mueller, declined to comment. A spokesman for Manafort didn’t immediately have comment on the ruling.

Manafort faces two criminal cases that include charges of money laundering conspiracy, bank fraud, tax evasion and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukrainian interests. None of the charges relate to allegations of Russian election interference and possible coordination with Trump associates, the main thrust of Mueller’s public appointment order.

Manafort’s attorneys, Kevin Downing and Thomas Zehnle, had pointed to that fact in arguing that Mueller had exceeded his authority by bringing charges unrelated to Russia or the Trump campaign. Initially, Manafort had asking Jackson to throw out all charges against him and nullify Mueller’s appointment order in total.

But in an April 4 hearing, Downing told Jackson that he was dropping the bulk of the civil challenge, asking her just to nullify a paragraph in Mueller’s appointment order that he believed was overly broad. They also asked Jackson to issue an order protecting Manafort from future prosecutions by Mueller.

The Justice Department had moved for dismissal of the lawsuit, largely on grounds that allowing a judge in a civil case to dictate the scope of a criminal investigation would be a violation of separation of powers. Daniel Schwei of the Justice Department’s civil division argued that previous precedent should guide the judge to throw out the suit.

“This is a collateral civil challenge attacking a criminal prosecution,” Schwei told the judge.

Manafort’s civil lawsuit did not address a recently released memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that appears to undercut his argument that Mueller didn’t have the authority to prosecute him.

The August 2017 memo shows Rosenstein specifically authorized the special counsel to investigate Manafort for his political consulting work in Ukraine on behalf of the government and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The memo, which had not been previously released publicly, also revealed that Mueller was empowered to investigate whether Manafort “committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials” to interfere with the presidential election.

The portions of the memo were made public in a court filing that responded to Manafort’s motion to dismiss his criminal case in Washington, which is also before Jackson. That motion and a similar one in Manafort’s criminal case in Virginia are still pending.