WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Greg Craig, who served as former President Barack Obama’s top White House lawyer, was charged on Thursday with lying about work he performed in 2012 for Ukraine in a case that grew out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Craig, 74, faces up to 10 years in prison for charges of making false statements and violating a lobbying law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
He is accused of lying to the Justice Department about his work after he left the White House on a legal review that largely vindicated the prosecution of a political enemy of Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-aligned president of Ukraine at the time.
Craig said in a statement he headed a team of lawyers that worked on an independent report for Ukraine’s justice ministry. After researching FARA requirements, they found they did not need to register as foreign agents under the law.
“This prosecution is unprecedented and unjustified. I am confident that both the judge and the jury will agree with me,” Craig said.
Craig’s lawyers indicated he would plead not guilty. He is scheduled to appear in the U.S. District Court in Washington on Friday.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, the New York law firm that produced the report, agreed in January to turn over the $4.6 million it was paid and retroactively register as a foreign agent, as part of a settlement with the Justice Department.
Skadden produced the 187-page report at the behest of Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign who is currently serving a 7 1/2-year prison sentence for lobbying violations and financial crimes.
Manafort was apparently happy with Craig’s work.
“You are ‘THE MAN,’” he wrote Craig in an email after the report received favorable media coverage, according to the indictment.
The report was meant to be an objective review of the Ukrainian government’s prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, the country’s former prime minister who was convicted in 2011 on corruption charges and sentenced to seven years in prison.
It criticized Tymoshenko’s behavior during the trial and concluded that her due-process rights had not been violated, but also said that she had been improperly imprisoned during the trial.
The report was used by Yanukovych’s government to justify Tymoshenko’s pretrial detention to the European Court of Human Rights and influence U.S. lawmakers.
Yanukovych was one of Manafort’s main lobbying clients.
According to the indictment, Craig covered up aspects of his work in order to avoid registering as a foreign agent under FARA, a rarely enforced law that was enacted in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda.
Had Craig complied with the law, he would have been forced to reveal that funding for the report largely came from Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian billionaire. Pinchuk paid the firm $4 million for its work, according to Skadden filings made as part of its settlement.
The Ukrainian government only paid Skadden $12,000 - an amount so low that it aroused suspicion in Ukrainian media.
Craig also failed to disclose that Skadden was simultaneously helping out with Tymoshenko’s prosecution on other charges, prosecutors say.
“That would do enormous damage to the credibility” of the report, Craig wrote in an email to other Skadden attorneys, according to the indictment.
Craig privately had reservations about Tymoshenko’s treatment but left them out of the report, the indictment said.
“Evidence of criminal intent - i.e., that she intended to commit a crime - is virtually non-existent,” he wrote in a memorandum that was not included in the report, according to the charges.
During his tenure as Obama’s White House counsel from January 2009 to January 2010, Craig led the administration’s unsuccessful effort to shut down the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also represented former President Bill Clinton during his 1998 Senate impeachment trial.
Another Skadden lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, pleaded guilty last year to lying to investigators about the report.
Craig’s case stems from Mueller’s 22-month investigation into whether Trump’s presidential campaign worked with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
That probe led to charges against 34 people, including Russian agents and former key Trump allies, but Attorney General William Barr said last month that Mueller did not find enough evidence to charge Trump or others with criminal conspiracy.
Barr also said he decided there was not enough evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. He is expected to release a redacted version of Mueller’s final report to Congress next week.
Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Tim Ahmann, Nathan Layne and Mark Hosenball; editing by Lisa Shumaker, Bill Berkrot and Chris Reese