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Manafort accounts reflect murky politics in Ukraine

Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort

KIEV, Ukraine — Paul J. Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, recently filed financial reports with the Justice Department showing that his lobbying firm earned nearly $17 million for two years of work for a Ukrainian political party with links to the Kremlin.

Curiously, that was more than the party itself reported spending in the same period for its entire operation — the national political organization's expenses, salaries and other incidentals.

The discrepancies show a lot about how Manafort's clients — former President Viktor F. Yanukovych of Ukraine and his Party of Regions — operated.

And in a broader sense, they underscore the dangers that lurk for foreigners who, tempted by potentially rich payoffs, cast their lot with politicians in countries that at best have different laws about money in politics, and at worst are, like Ukraine in those years, irredeemably corrupt.

Yanukovych was driven from office in the Maidan Revolution of 2014, after having stolen, according to the current Ukrainian government, at least $1 billion. In the years before his fall, Manafort took lavish payments to burnish the image of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions in Washington, even as the party acknowledged only very modest spending.

In 2012, for example, the party reported annual expenses of about $11.1 million, based on the exchange rate at the time, excluding overhead. For the same year, Manafort reported income of $12.1 million from the party, the Justice Department filing shows.

In 2013, the Party of Regions reported expenses of $3.7 million, while Manafort reported receiving payments of $4.5 million.

Handwritten ledgers that surfaced last year indicated that the party had actually spent about $2 billion over the past decade or so, much or most of it illegally. Some outlays like payments to an election official possibly amounted to criminal bribery.

Manafort has not been charged with breaking any laws regarding the reporting of income derived from his efforts on behalf of the party.

In a statement, Manafort's spokesman, Jason Maloni, suggested the Party of Regions was accountable for the contradiction between the two disclosures. "Any questions about the reporting obligations of the Party of Regions should be directed to those within the party responsible for such reporting," the statement said. Manafort's work "was widely known and the firm was paid only for the work it performed. In fact, just last month Ukraine officials indicated that there is no proof of illicit payments."

Though documents discovered after the 2014 revolution show the party's coffers were padded with donations from Ukraine's ultrawealthy steel and natural gas tycoons, it tried to keep up a populist image and declared only a modest annual budget.

"It means either Manafort is lying, or the Party of Regions was lying," Serhiy Leshchenko, an investigative journalist and a member of parliament who has been critical of Manafort's work in Ukraine, said in an interview.

A Ukrainian investigation of this discrepancy is not likely. The Party of Regions is disbanded, and prosecutors are looking into more serious crimes than campaign finance filing errors.

Moreover, at the time the party made its declarations, filing a false campaign finance report was considered an administrative offense akin to a parking ticket and punishable by no more than a fine of a few hundred dollars, said Ostap Kuchma, a party finance analyst at the anti-corruption group Chesno.

Manafort's reports to the Justice Department do not cover the entire period he worked in Ukraine. Last summer, The New York Times reported that the party's handwritten ledgers showed $12.7 million in undisclosed payments designated for Manafort's firm from 2007 to 2012.

Anti-corruption officials in Ukraine assert the payments were part of an illegal off-the-books system. Manafort, who resigned from his campaign post shortly after the article appeared, has denied receiving any cash, and prosecutors in Ukraine have not accused him of wrongdoing.

Ukraine's chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky, reiterated that assessment last month, telling Ukrainian television that ledger entries provided no proof of Manafort's having received illegal payments.

But the investigation into the accounting book, including the entries mentioning Manafort, is still open, and has shifted from one branch of the prosecutor's office to another, Serhiy Gorbatyuk, the prosecutor in charge of the case, said in an interview.

"The Party of Regions was spending a lot of cash, to bribe voters and for illegal advertising," said Daria M. Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center. "Manafort took the money to whitewash its reputation in the West."

Manafort accounts reflect murky politics in Ukraine 07/15/17 [Last modified: Saturday, July 15, 2017 8:55pm]
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