Manafort Judge Questions Claim of Improper Records Seizure

(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge posed skeptical questions about Paul Manafort’s claim that an FBI agent improperly searched a storage unit that held his business records before the former chairman to President Donald Trump’s campaign was charged in two indictments.

Manafort’s lawyers argued Wednesday to a federal judge in Washington that records seized by the FBI should be suppressed because the agent improperly gained access to the storage space from a former employee of Manafort’s political consulting firm who still had a key.

The agent surveyed the contents of the facility in Alexandria, Virginia, wrote a search warrant and got a judge’s signature before the FBI returned the next day to seize thousands of records relating to Manafort’s consulting firm. At the time of the May 2017 search, that employee was working for a related Manafort business.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson questioned Manafort’s assertion that the ex-employee who gave access to the storage locker didn’t have authority to grant such permission, amounting to a violation of Manafort’s constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Where’s the evidence that makes it unreasonable?” Jackson asked Manafort attorney Thomas Zehnle. “Where’s the evidence that Mr. Manafort was exerting control of this space?”

Storage Unit

Zehnle responded that the agent’s search warrant affidavit said at three different points that the employee said he could gain access to the facility only “at the direction” of Manafort. That meant the FBI agent should have questioned whether Manafort needed to consent to the search of the unit, Zehnle argued. The unit measured 10 feet by 25 feet and contained 21 bankers’ boxes of material as well as a five-drawer cabinet.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who signed the indictments against Manafort as part of his probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, defends the agent’s conduct, saying he acted properly. A Justice Department lawyer arguing on behalf of Mueller, Scott Meisler, said that the employee signed the lease, held a key and initially moved materials into the space. Given all of that, the employee could consent to the search, Meisler said.

The seized records provided evidence that led to the indictment of Manafort in Washington on charges of money laundering and acting as an unregistered agent of Ukraine. He’s also charged in Alexandria with tax and bank fraud.

In court filings, Manafort’s lawyers included a copy of the warrant and the supporting affidavit, which had several pages blacked out. The affidavit said the former employee had worked for Davis Manafort Partners and then Steam Mountain LLC, the other Manafort business.

Guilty Plea

Agents sought records related to work by Manafort and his former right-hand man in Ukraine, Rick Gates, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.

Manafort attorney Richard Westling also argued Wednesday that FBI agents violated his client’s constitutional rights in their search of his Alexandria home in July 2017 with a warrant that allowed them to seize thousands of documents and a vast array of electronics and data storage units.

“Fundamentally, its over-breadth creates the problem,” Westling said.

Manafort’s lawyers also asked for a detailed listing of evidence, known as a bill of particulars. The judge posed questions suggesting she’s not sympathetic to the request, given the detail in the indictment and the pretrial exchange of evidence known as discovery.

FARA Lawyer

Justice Department attorney Greg Andres said that Manafort’s team had all the information it’s entitled to and shouldn’t get a bill of particulars. He also revealed that one witness whom prosecutors will call at trial is Melissa Laurenza, an attorney at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP who had advised Manafort and Gates on their Justice Department filings required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Mueller accuses Manafort of filing false FARA filings, and Laurenza testified to a grand jury after the chief judge in federal court in Washington, Beryl Howell, compelled her to appear.

Laurenza had asserted that her communications with Manafort and Gates were privileged. But the judge ruled she had to appear because of the so-called crime-fraud exception, which applies when a client communicates with a lawyer with intent to further a crime. Prosecutors don’t assert that Laurenza did anything wrong.

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