WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's campaign chairman Paul Manafort is not the only Trump aide to have been involved in lobbying for Ukraine's pro-Russian ex-president.
Mike McSherry, a senior vice president at Mercury Public Affairs who helped lead the Trump campaign's convention committee strategy last month, is listed in Mercury's lobbying disclosure forms as having represented a Brussels-based nonprofit group linked to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Manafort steered the Centre toward hiring two lobbying firms in Washington: Mercury and the Podesta Group, which is run by Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman's brother.
During that era, Manafort was consulting for Yanukovych's Party of Regions. Yanukovych, a close Putin ally, now lives in Russia after being ousted from power in 2014.
Neither the firms nor Manafort filed documents with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, despite the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine's close ties to a foreign political leader and Manafort's work for Yanukovych's party. The Centre was founded by a top Party of Regions official. The AP reported that Manafort helped to steer a total of $2.2 million to the two firms in 2012.
McSherry's name appears in documents Mercury filed with the Senate under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Trump's campaign brought McSherry on to help with delegate efforts for the convention, and it was reported earlier this month that his role in the campaign was being expanded. McSherry did not respond to BuzzFeed News requests for comment.
An email obtained by BuzzFeed News shows McSherry taking an active role in lobbying for the Centre; in the February 2013 email, he reached out to a Republican senator's office to pass on a request from Vin Weber, the former congressman who is a partner at Mercury and also lobbied for the Ukrainian group, who wanted to set up a meeting for former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewsk on behalf of the Centre.
Weber told Yahoo News on Wednesday that Manafort had recruited him to represent the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, and that he had repeatedly asked Manafort who was backing the group financially, but Manafort would not say. Weber told Yahoo that he "never doubted they were tied to Yanukovych.”
The Brussels-based head of the group, Ina Kirsch, told BuzzFeed News she had "nothing to do with Manafort," though she told the AP she had met with Manafort twice.
A former Podesta employee told the AP that Manafort's associate Rick Gates, also now on the Trump campaign, had "described the nonprofit's role in an April 2012 meeting as supplying a source of money that could not be traced to the Ukrainian politicians who were paying him and Manafort."
Though FARA violations are rarely prosecuted, they carry a heavy potential penalty: up to five years in prison or a $250,000 fine. To avoid the stringent disclosures required by FARA, foreign governments and political leaders sometimes use seemingly unconnected groups that can hire lobbyists in their stead. Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, lobbyists are not required to disclose as much information as under FARA.
Washington lawyer Ken Gross advised Mercury before they took on the client that they did not need to file under FARA. His legal opinion, which was also used by the Podesta Group, was based on the Centre's promise, in writing, that they were not backed by a foreign government or political leader. The written declaration, dated April 30, 2012, and signed by Kirsch, says that the Centre was not "directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a government of a foreign country or a foreign political party."
"Mercury fully disclosed activity under the LDA," Gross told BuzzFeed News in an email, referring to the Lobbying Disclosure Act. "Mercury was not required to register under FARA based on the unequivocal written and oral certifications stating that the Centre was a private entity and was not under the direction or funded by the Ukrainian government or foreign political party. If the Centre had advised otherwise, Mercury would have registered under FARA without hesitation."
Gross said he did not think there could be grounds for an investigation because, "We did everything we could have reasonably done under the circumstances" to ensure that the Centre was not being directed by a foreign politician or government.
Podesta Group CEO Kimberly Fritts said that her firm "has a formal process in place, led by in-house counsel, to ensure that we follow the law, which includes determining whether our work for a given client would best be registered and reported under the Lobbying Disclosure Act or the Foreign Agent Registration Act. In this case, because the firm was partnering with Mercury, in-house counsel coordinated with Mercury’s counsel and Mercury’s outside legal counsel. Together, they concluded that LDA was the appropriate reporting route. If counsel had determined FARA was the way to go, we would have gladly registered under FARA."
Fritts said that the Centre attested in writing that it was not being controlled or subsidized by a foreign government or party.
"Further, we were not aware that Rick Gates was a Party of Regions consultant at the time he introduced us to the Centre. We believed he was working for the Centre, as we were hired to do," Fritts said.
Mercury's Weber did not return a request for comment.
In the run-up to the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in 2012, the Centre was behind a covert scheme to spread its talking points among U.S. conservative media. One person involved in the arrangement said they had been paid $500 to do so.
There have been several revelations about Manafort's connections to pro-Russian forces in Ukraine over the course of the campaign. The Times of London also reported on Wednesday that a Ukrainian prosecutor has accused Manafort of fomenting anti-NATO protests in Crimea prior to Russia's annexation of Crimea. And last week, the New York Times reported that a secret Party of Regions letter showed $12.7 million in cash payments listed for Manafort, though Manafort denies receiving the money.
Rosie Gray is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. Gray reports on politics and foreign policy.
Contact Rosie Gray at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.