Rick Gates, former top campaign aide to Trump, pleads guilty in Russia investigation
Former Trump aide Rick Gates, left, and his lawyer, Tom Green, depart the federal courthouse in Washington on Feb. 14. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)


Richard W. Gates III, who helped lead President Trump’s campaign after making millions of dollars advising Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin government, pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy against the United States and lying to the FBI, becoming the latest former Trump aide to admit wrongdoing in the sprawling Russia investigation.

He is expected to face about 18 months in prison under terms of a plea deal and has agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

The plea, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., is unusual because it indicates that Gates lied to Mueller’s team and the FBI as recently as Feb. 1, when he already was negotiating with prosecutors about the raft of criminal charges he was facing.

Gates, 45, is the fifth person to plead guilty in the Mueller probe, and the first to confess to more than one criminal charge.

The development comes a day after Mueller filed a new indictment with 32 charges of tax evasion, bank fraud and other allegations against Gates and his former business partner, Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign manager for three months in 2016, including at the tumultuous Republican National Convention.

Gates, who served as Manafort’s deputy, is expected to testify against Manafort if his case goes to trial. It’s not clear what else he can provide prosecutors, but Gates continued to serve as a senior advisor to the Trump campaign after Manafort stepped down in August 2016, helped organize Trump’s inauguration, and had access to the White House as an outside advisor in the early weeks of the administration.

None of the charges against Gates and Manafort cite Russian meddling in the presidential election, which was the impetus for Mueller’s investigation, but the alleged tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy extended through 2017 and thus overlapped with the pair’s work in the top ranks of the Trump campaign, according to court documents.

In a statement Friday, Manafort continued to assert his innocence.

“Notwithstanding that Rick Gates pled today, I continue to maintain my innocence,” he wrote. “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. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me.”

Gates’ guilty plea marks an emphatic fall for the married father of four. The son of a career Army officer, Gates had maintained an appearance of wealthy prestige while living in an upscale neighborhood of Richmond, Va.

The Times reported Sunday that Gates was about to plead guilty in a deal negotiated by his lawyer, Thomas C. Green, and two prosecutors, Andrew Weissmann and Greg D. Andres, who serve on Mueller’s team.

A person familiar with the negotiated plea said Gates can expect “a substantial reduction in his sentence” if he fully cooperates with the special counsel’s investigation. If Gates were convicted of all the earlier charges, he could have faced years in prison.

Before Gates appeared with Green to formally admit his guilt, he had become briefly distraught at taking that final step, according to people familiar with the case. However, as of Wednesday, Gates assured Green that he would stand behind the negotiated deal, a person involved with the investigation said.

The charge of lying to the FBI stems from his account of a dinner discussion on March 19, 2013, between Manafort and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), who has been a strong advocate for better U.S. relations with Russia.

Three weeks ago, as he was negotiating his plea deal, Gates told the FBI that Manafort and an unnamed lobbyist had told him they didn’t talk to Rohrabacher about Ukraine.

But, according to a court filing Friday, Gates had helped Manafort prepare a report that “memorialized for Ukraine leadership the pertinent Ukraine discussions that Manafort represented had taken place at the meeting.”

Last year, Manafort and Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and a partner in the Mercury Public Affairs firm in Washington, filed belated reports to the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, listing the Rohrabacher meeting as part of their lobbying work on behalf of Ukraine government interests.

Rohrabacher acknowledged to The Times last year that he had discussed Russian and regional issues at what he called “a nice little dinner” at the Capitol Hill Club. Three days after the meeting, Manafort contributed $1,000 to Rohrabacher’s reelection campaign.

Rohrabacher declined to comment when contacted by a reporter on Friday. “I can’t do any interviews off the cuff,” he said, before hanging up. Weber and Mercury Public Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs said Friday that Ukraine only came up “in passing” because the men “reminisced and talked mostly about politics.”

“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 in an email. “It is no secret that Manafort represented [former Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych’s interests, but 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.”

The Podesta Group, a firm with high-level Democratic connections, also last year reported doing lobbying work for the Ukraine interests under Manafort’s direction. Tony Podesta, whose brother John Podesta was the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, left the firm after the initial indictment of Manafort and Gates last year.

Gates and Manafort initially were charged with a dozen counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in October, and they pleaded not guilty to those charges.

In the latest indictment, prosecutors painted a detailed picture of how Manafort and Gates used offshore accounts to stash millions of dollars and illegally funneled the money into the United States to purchase real estate and finance luxury lifestyles.

Their income dried up after political unrest forced Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee to Russia in 2014, and the indictment says they turned to fraud to obtain more than $20 million in loans.

The special counsel’s office has proved adept at securing cooperation from top figures in Trump’s orbit.

Former White House national security advisor Michael T. Flynn pleaded guilty on Dec. 1 to lying to investigators about his communications with a Russian diplomat during the presidential transition. He admitted to discussing sanctions that former President Obama had implemented to punish Moscow for meddling in the campaign.

There have been other guilty pleas as well.

George Papadopoulos, a former campaign foreign policy advisor, pleaded guilty to lying last year. He had falsely denied contacts with Russians who claimed to have “thousands of emails” on Hillary Clinton,

In addition, Alex van der Zwaan, a former lawyer at a prominent law firm who worked on a report on behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russia government, pleaded guilty on Tuesday. He lied to investigators about his communications with Gates.

Times correspondent Sarah D. Wire contributed to this story.

Twitter: @chrismegerian


Courtesy: L A Times

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