WASHINGTON (AP) — A Washington lobbying firm that worked under the direction of Paul Manafort's firm registered Friday with the Justice Department as a foreign agent — the same day a spokesman for Manafort backed off his previous statement that Manafort had decided to register.
Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort, said he was wrong when he told The Associated Press earlier this month that Manafort would register with the Justice Department. Maloni said Manafort, who served as President Donald Trump's campaign chairman, is still considering his options after receiving guidance from the federal authorities about formally disclosing his efforts to influence U.S. policy and public opinion on behalf of a foreign client.
As of Friday, two of the lobbying firms involved in the influence campaign on behalf of Ukrainian interests have acknowledged that their work should have been disclosed to the Justice Department. The AP reported in August that Manafort's consulting firm covertly orchestrated the lobbying and public opinion operation on behalf of a pro-Russian political party, the Ukrainian Party of Regions, and its leader, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The latest registration came Friday from Mercury LLC, which disclosed that Manafort was involved in its lobbying work, attending meetings with Mercury managing partner Vin Weber. Weber had previously told the AP that Manafort played no role in Mercury's work.
In a statement to the AP, Maloni downplayed Manafort's involvement as it was detailed in Mercury's filing. "One meeting with one lawmaker connected to this topic in a two-year period looks like incidental contact to fair-minded Americans," Maloni said, referring to a meeting Manafort had with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif, who later opposed a 2014 aid package to the government that replaced Yanukovych's.
That Rohrabacher meeting was one of four attended by Manafort which were detailed in the filing.
Mercury partner Mike McKeon denied that his firm had taken direction from Manafort's firm, DMP International. He said that, in addition to setting up lobbying meetings on behalf of Ukrainian government officials, Mercury had also worked with other Ukrainian political interests.
"We work for and under the direction of the Centre, no one else," McKeon wrote in an email to the AP.
But emails obtained by the AP last August show that Manafort's firm and his deputy Rick Gates, also a Trump campaign aide, directed Mercury's efforts on specific lobbying tasks.
The emails show Gates directing Mercury lobbyists to set up meetings between a top Ukrainian official and senators and congressmen on influential committees involving Ukrainian interests. Gates had the firms gather information in the U.S. on a rival lobbying operation and directed efforts to undercut sympathy for Yulia Tymoshenko, an imprisoned rival of Yanukovych.
Mercury had announced earlier this month that it would register for the work as a foreign agent after another lobbying firm, The Podesta Group, did so. The Podesta Group acknowledged its work could have benefited the Ukrainian government and should have been disclosed to the government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Mercury's filing says it does not know who ultimately was behind the European Centre, though the group was initially set up in Brussels with members of the Party of Regions on its board. In its retroactive registration Friday, Mercury said it has "no direct knowledge" of what people or entities funded the Centre, but said Mercury's goal was to help Ukraine build closer ties with the European Union.
Throughout 2013, the firm also set up "educational events" and meetings that featured Ukrainian government officials and other experts on Ukraine and the EU. It is not clear from the documents whether Mercury's experts were also paid. Among the firm's listed experts were Alfred Gusenbauer, Austria's former chancellor, and Romano Prodi, Italy's former prime minister. The firm said it also arranged meetings with legislators and congressional staffers as well as think tanks and the media.
Associated Press writer Jack Gillum contributed to this report.