WASHINGTON -- A former senior adviser to President Donald Trump's election campaign pleaded guilty Friday to federal conspiracy and false-statements charges, switching from defendant to cooperating witness in the special counsel's probe of Trump's campaign and Russia's election interference.
The plea by Rick Gates revealed that he will help special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation in "any and all matters" as prosecutors continue to probe Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Gates' longtime business associate and former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Also Friday, Mueller's team unsealed a new indictment solely against Manafort that included an allegation that in 2012 he, with Gates' assistance, secretly paid former European politicians to lobby on behalf of Ukraine.
The indictment accuses Manafort of paying the former politicians, informally known as the "Hapsburg group," to appear to be "independent" analysts when in fact they were paid lobbyists. Some of the covert lobbying took place in the U.S.
The indictment says the group was managed by a former European chancellor. Court papers accuse Manafort of using offshore accounts to pay the group more than 2 million euros ($2.6 million).
With his cooperation, Gates gives Mueller a witness willing to provide information on Manafort's finances and political consulting work in Ukraine, and also someone who had access at the highest levels of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
At the time, Ukraine was led by President Viktor Yanukovych, who favored strong ties with Russia.
Gates, 45, of Richmond, Va., made the plea at the federal courthouse in Washington. He stood somberly beside his attorney and did not speak during his hearing except to answer routine questions from the judge about whether he understood the rights he was giving up.
He admitted to charges accusing him of conspiring against the U.S. government that were related to fraud and unregistered foreign lobbying, as well as lying to federal authorities in a recent interview. Under the terms of the plea, he is estimated to face between 57 and 71 months behind bars and a possible fine ranging from $20,000 to $200,000. Prosecutors may seek a shortened sentence depending on his cooperation.
The final sentence will be made by a judge, after hearing from prosecutors about Gates's role in the crimes at issue and how useful his cooperation was to prosecutors. As part of the deal, prosecutors also dropped a forfeiture demand that could have made Gates liable for up to $18 million in payments if convicted.
The plea came a day after a federal grand jury in Virginia returned a 32-count indictment against Gates and Manafort accusing them of tax evasion and bank fraud. Gates is the fifth defendant to plead guilty in Mueller's investigation.
The indictment in Virginia was the second round of charges against Gates and Manafort, who were initially charged in October with unregistered lobbying and conspiring to launder millions of dollars they earned while working on behalf of Yanukovych's pro-Kremlin Ukrainian political party.
The charges against Manafort and Gates do not involve activities inside the Trump campaign, although the conduct in question continued while they worked there. Instead, the special counsel accused the men of lying on their income-tax returns and conspiring to commit bank fraud to get loans as part of an elaborate scheme to use their income from the Ukrainian political party to buy properties, evade taxes and support Manafort's lavish lifestyle.
Prosecutors charge that Manafort, with help from Gates, laundered more than $30 million between 2006 and 2016, and Gates transferred more than $3 million to accounts he controlled during that time.
"Notwithstanding that Rick Gates pleaded today, I continue to maintain my innocence," Manafort said in a statement.
"I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence. For reasons yet to surface he chose to do otherwise," Manafort said Friday. "This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled-up charges contained in the indictments against me."
CLOSE TRUMP AIDE
For a few months in 2016, Gates was indispensable to Trump, leading the ground effort to help Trump win the Republican nomination and flying from state to state to secure Republican delegates before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Gates' plea comes on the heels of the indictment last week that laid out a broad operation of election meddling by Russia, which began in 2014 and employed fake social media accounts and on-the-ground politicking to promote Trump's campaign, disparage Hillary Clinton and sow division and discord widely among the U.S. electorate.
The charges to which Gates is pleading guilty don't involve any conduct connected to the Trump campaign.
But his plea does newly reveal that Gates spoke with the FBI earlier this month and lied during the interview. That same day, his attorneys filed a motion to withdraw from representing him for "irreconcilable difference."
Gates served on the Trump campaign at the same time that Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner met with a team of Russians in Trump Tower in June 2016. He was also involved in the campaign when then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. -- and now the U.S. attorney general -- held a pair of undisclosed meetings with Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
But his power and influence waned once Trump fired Manafort in August 2016 after The Associated Press disclosed how Gates and Manafort covertly directed a Washington lobbying campaign on behalf of Ukrainian interests.
Gates survived his mentor's ouster, serving as the campaign's liaison to the Republican National Committee and later working on Trump's inaugural committee. Gates also worked briefly last year with the outside political groups supporting Trump's agenda, America First Policies and America First Action.
When he was indicted in October, Gates was working for Tom Barrack, a close friend of Trump.
CAUGHT IN A LIE
Friday's court papers accuse Gates of lying to federal agents about a March 19, 2013, meeting involving Manafort, a lobbyist and a member of Congress.
According to his plea, when Gates was asked by the FBI about the meeting, he claimed he was told by Manafort and a lobbyist there had been no discussion of Ukraine, when in fact, Gates helped prepare a report in which Manafort detailed the Ukrainian discussions, according to plea documents. Mercury Public Affairs, a consulting and lobbying firm, had reported the meeting in public regulatory documents months earlier.
The charges don't name the lobbyist or the lawmaker, but filings with the Justice Department show Manafort and Vin Weber of Mercury Public Affairs met with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., on that date as part of a lobbying campaign on behalf of Ukrainian interests.
Rohrabacher has been interviewed by the FBI, according to Ken Grubbs, a spokesman for the congressman.
"As the congressman has acknowledged before, the meeting was a dinner with two longtime acquaintances -- Manafort and Weber -- from back in his White House and early congressional days," Grubbs said. "The three reminisced and talked mostly about politics. The subject of Ukraine came up in passing. ... As chairman of the relevant European subcommittee, the congressman has listened to all points of view on Ukraine. We may only speculate that Manafort needed to report back to his client that Ukraine was discussed."
Mercury's Michael McKeon said in a statement that Gates "admitted that he didn't tell the truth to the Government and didn't tell the truth to our lawyers when he spoke to them about this project. While he and others involved with this matter may have acted criminally and tried to hide it, we acted appropriately, following our counsel's advice throughout the engagement. We will continue to cooperate with the Special Counsel because we are confident we have acted appropriately throughout."
Information for this article was contributed by Chad Day, Tom LoBianco, Eric Tucker and Jeff Horwitz of The Associated Press, and by Devlin Barrett, Spencer S. Hsu, Tom Hamburger and Michael Kranish of The Washington Post.
A Section on 02/24/2018
Print Headline: Mueller accepts plea from ex-Trump aide