Manafort says FBI illegally searched storage unit for evidence

Manafort’s lawyers say that an FBI agent improperly obtained access to the unit from a former employee of his political consulting firm who still had a key. (Bloomberg pic)

WASHINGTON: Paul Manafort, the indicted former campaign chairman to President Donald Trump, claims the FBI illegally searched a storage unit that held his business and tax records and is asking a judge to throw out all evidence from that search.

Manafort’s lawyers said in a court filing late Friday that an FBI agent improperly obtained access to the unit from a former employee of his political consulting firm who still had a key.

Having surveyed the entire contents of the storage locker in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 26, the agent wrote a search warrant, which a judge then signed. The FBI returned the next day to seize boxes of records and a file cabinet, according to the filing in federal court in Washington.

Those records provided evidence that led to the indictment of Manafort and his former right-hand man, Rick Gates, Manafort’s lawyers contend. Arguing the former low-level employee of Davis Manafort Partners Inc. lacked the authority to let the agent into the storage unit, the search violated Manafort’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures, they said.

“The search warrant was fundamentally flawed from the outset because the FBI agent knew when he conducted the warrantless search of the storage unit that he had not obtained valid consent to do so,” Manafort’s attorneys wrote. “All evidence that the government obtained from the FBI’s second search of the premises, and the fruits thereof, should be suppressed.”

A spokesman for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is overseeing the Manafort investigation as part of his probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, declined to comment.

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to separate indictments in Washington and Alexandria that were signed by Mueller. Manafort has filed a civil lawsuit and motions in both of his criminal cases that question Mueller’s legal authority to prosecute him. Those matters are pending.

Laundering, fraud
Manafort is accused in the Washington case of laundering the profits from tens of millions of dollars that he made as a political consultant to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and other politicians there, as well as of failing to register in the US as a lobbyist. In Virginia, he’s accused of tax and bank fraud. Gates has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with Mueller.

Beyond improperly entering Manafort’s storage unit the first time, FBI agents seized far more records than they should have for the time period of the crimes they were investigating, his lawyers argue in Friday’s filing.

The filing includes a copy of both the warrant and the supporting affidavit, which has several pages blacked out. According to the affidavit, the former employee of Davis Manafort Partners was then working for Steam Mountain LLC, another Manafort business. The person isn’t identified in the affidavit.

Boxes, cabinet
The ex-employee told the agent that the unit was rented from Public Storage at 370 Holland Lane for US$332 a month. The person, who had moved the files into the locker, signed a written consent for the agent and provided a key. The unit, measuring 10 feet by 25 feet, contained 21 bankers’ boxes and a five-drawer cabinet, according to the affidavit.

Manafort’s lawyers asked US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson for a hearing to determine whether the consent to search was “freely and voluntarily given’’ by the ex-employee.

“The FBI Affidavit provides no indication of the facts and circumstances of the former employee’s purported consent,’’ according to the filing.

The documents in the unit spanned three decades, and included records of Manafort’s investment in a New York film production company and his work as a Republican leader for presidential conventions in 1988, 1992 and 1996, according to the affidavit.

Agents were looking for records related to work by Manafort and Gates in Ukraine, as well as documents involving several accounts in Cyprus that prosecutors later said were used to launder millions of dollars into the US

“The searching agents improperly seized everything contained within the storage unit, without regard for which ‘documents’ and ‘binders’ they were authorized, or not authorized, to take,’’ Manafort’s lawyers said.