WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, facing federal scrutiny for his influential ties to the Russian government, steered a lucrative Ukrainian lobbying contract to former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber.
Between 2012 and 2014, Weber received almost $700,000 to lobby for the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, an organization that advocated for the country to join the European Union. Weber, along with the Podesta Group, received the contract from Paul Manafort and another Trump strategist, Rick Gates.
Manafort could face a federal inquiry for his lobbying ties to the Russian government. At the same time, Ukrainian investigators are examining a corruption network allegedly used to influence elections during the administration of former President Viktor Yanukovych, one of Manafort’s main clients.
After the new Ukrainian revelations, Manafort abruptly resigned from the Trump campaign, and now Weber faces uncertainty as to whether he will be part of a federal inquiry.
“Our purpose was to keep [the Ukrainians] away from Moscow,” said Weber, a former Republican congressman who left office in 1993. “Our goal as Americans and Westerners was to bring Ukraine into the E.U. Our explicit work was anti-Russian.”
Controversy surrounding potentially illegal lobbying contracts with Ukraine emerged after the New York Times reported earlier in August about a secret ledger that detailed more than $12 million in alleged cash payments to Manafort from Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party. Manafort has denied receiving any money.
In an interview, Weber said Manafort might have misled him about who was funding the Centre for a Modern Ukraine.
Weber said Manafort asked if he’d be willing to work for an entity — backed by Ukrainian citizens — that supports the nation joining the E.U.
Ukraine has been locked in a bitter and violent feud with Russia, which has been trying to apply economic, political and military pressure to weaken and eventually take over Ukraine. In recent days, the two countries have been on the verge of all-out war.
Weber said the Ukrainian organization hired him to gain access to members of Congress and to help persuade elected officials in Washington, D.C., that it was in the best interest of the West to have Ukraine join the E.U.
“I didn’t know he was pro-Russian,” Weber said of Manafort. “I didn’t think he was in favor of moving toward the East on all this,” he said. “I thought he wanted to make it happen in the West.”
Potentially problematic for Weber is the way he advocated for the Ukrainian organization. On the advice of his lawyer, he did not register as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department, which is required for those trying to influence American policy on behalf of foreign entities. Failure to register properly is a felony, with a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Weber said he was told “verbally and in writing” that the Centre for a Modern Ukraine was funded and backed by Ukrainian citizens, not a government entity, so the law did not require the same kind of reporting.
Political consultants can be leery of registering as foreign agents, fearing that their publicly disclosed work championing foreign governments could damage their reputations, particularly when their advocacy conflicts with America’s interests. Registering as a foreign agent also requires more disclosure about expenditures and work activity.
Weber said he had no reason to misrepresent the work he was doing. He is registered as a foreign lobbyist for Qatar, the Turkish Embassy and the Japan Embassy, among other countries.
The Podesta Group has hired outside lawyers to investigate whether it was misled by the Centre for a Modern Ukraine regarding potential ties to foreign governments or political parties.
“We will take whatever measures are necessary to address this situation ... including possible legal action against the Centre,” Podesta Group CEO Kimberley Fritts said in a statement.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the government watchdog group Public Citizen, said Manafort would bear the blame if he deceived Weber and Podesta as to who bankrolled the Centre for a Modern Ukraine.
“I can’t imagine [Weber] wanting to commit a felony in concealing this,” Holman said. “I think Manafort doesn’t want to reveal who he is working for.”
News outlets last week confirmed an FBI and Justice Department investigation into U.S. ties to the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine, including Manafort’s firm.