State Politics

Manafort lobbyists met with Idaho's Jim Risch, leading to claim of illegal donations

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, center, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heads to the chamber in March 2014 to advance a bill providing $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine as former President Barack Obama met with U.S. allies in Europe to punish Moscow for its annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, center, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heads to the chamber in March 2014 to advance a bill providing $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine as former President Barack Obama met with U.S. allies in Europe to punish Moscow for its annexation of the Crimean peninsula. AP file

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, was reportedly among numerous American politicians pursued by a Ukrainian lobbying effort now being scrutinized by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The push "engaged ... every member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee," Paul Manafort wrote in a 2013 memo to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Risch has served on the committee since 2009. Mueller's team included the memo in court documents filed Tuesday in the case against Manafort.

That long-running investigation helped inspire a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission last August. A Massachusetts attorney believes Risch received illegal foreign campaign contributions via a scheme concocted by Manafort and a former business partner, Rick Gates, in which a foreign national group backed by Yanukovych's political party used “straw men” to donate to U.S. candidates running for federal office.

Risch did meet with and received $3,000 in campaign donations from lobbyists Manafort hired, according to various lobbying disclosures. But the FEC has not ruled on the complaint's broader claims, and it remains an allegation for now.

Risch spokeswoman Kaylin Minton said his office has already responded to the FEC, "stating Sen. Risch knew nothing about this — he has heard nothing since then."

Minton also said Risch has not been contacted by any Department of Justice, FBI, Special Counsel or other investigators about the lobbyists Manafort hired or their campaign contributions to him.

Russia Yanukovych.JPG
Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gestures during an interview with The Associated Press, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in April 2014. Ivan Sekretarev AP file

Yanukovych led Ukraine's pro-Russian Party of Regions and served as president from 2010 until early 2014, when he was ousted and fled to Russia.

Mueller's broader investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election led to an October 2017 indictment against Manafort, updated earlier this month to include charges of witness tampering. The bulk of the indictment involves Manafort's past unregistered lobbying work for Ukraine, which included trying to shift American attention away from the imprisonment of one of Yanukovych's former rivals.

The indictment includes references to two lobbying firms Manafort hired for the Ukraine work. News reports later identified those firms as Mercury Public Affairs LLC and Podesta Group.

Three Mercury partners—John (Vin) Weber, Michael McSherry and Edward Kutler—met with Risch on Nov. 13, 2013, to lobby on behalf the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU), according to disclosure documents eventually filed by Mercury. ECFMU presented itself as an independent think tank, but was really a Yanukovych project, Mueller claims.

mercury snippet.JPG
This screenshot from a Foreign Agents Registration Act statement filed by Mercury Public Affairs details its contacts with lawmakers including Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.

A few weeks later, on Dec. 4, 2013, Risch received contributions of $1,000 each from Weber, McSherry and Kutler, FEC records show. Risch was up for election in 2014.

ECFMU then paid Mercury more than $218,000 in fees and “reimbursement” a few months later.

Massachusetts ethics attorney J. Whitfield Larrabee summed up the lobbying visit and donations in his complaint to the FEC, filed on behalf of himself and three private citizens. He believes that reimbursement money included payments for the donations to Risch.

“Risch accepted the contributions, knowing that they were paid through a straw, and that the funds came from the ECFMU, or other foreign nationals of Ukrainian or Russian origin who where laundering money though the ECFMU,” Larrabee wrote.

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman and once a lobbyist for the former government of Ukraine, leaves the federal courthouse in Washington in November 2017. Jacquelyn Martin AP file

His complaint makes similar allegations about California Republican Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Ed Royce, both House Foreign Affairs Committee members. The complaint states the timing and the three politicians' knowledge of lobbying, Ukraine and Russia show they would have understood where the donations came from — but Larrabee offers no direct proof that the three men knew the source.

Risch is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism. So, taking meetings pertaining to Ukraine would be under his purview.

Of the 20 senators on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in 2013, Risch was the only one then to get contributions connected to Mercury.

Asked further about the complaint and Mueller's new filings, Minton said Risch "had never heard of a Ukrainian outreach program. As part of his job on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees over the past 10 years, he has had thousands of meetings with representatives of most if not all of the 200+ countries in the world. He has no specific recollection of any meetings with the Ukrainians or representatives of any Ukrainian interest groups, but says it is possible that he has met with Ukrainians or Ukrainian representatives just as he has met with virtually every country or country’s representatives."

Risch is currently at the top of the chain to replace Foreign Relations chairman Sen. Bob Corker, who is not seeking re-election.

No documents or complaints make it clear if Mercury or Manafort ever felt they benefited from their outreach to Risch. In recent years, Risch has argued for a stronger U.S. response to Russia following that country's annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine, and voted for a bill last year expanding sanctions on Russia, sponsored by fellow Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo. He has repeatedly voiced skepticism that any attempt by Russia to influence the 2016 election was successful.

Rohrabacher, a noted pro-Russian voice in Congress, has downplayed any idea that much lobbying occurred during his ECFMU-related meeting. A spokesman told Politico that meeting was "mostly about politics, old times."

But other reports suggest the congressman was a target. The New York Times reported in May 2017 that “the FBI warned [Rohrabacher] in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to recruit him ... an example of how aggressively Russian agents have tried to influence Washington politics.”

Manafort served as director of President Donald Trump’s campaign during part of 2016; Gates, his former business partner, served as deputy director.

Gates has since pleaded guilty in February to two charges of conspiracy against the U.S. He is said to be cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Larrabee told the Statesman he is going to add the Gates information and Manafort indictment to the FEC complaint. "These documents make reference to some of the respondents and lend credence to our complaint,” he said.

Cynthia Sewell is the Idaho Statesman's government watchdog reporter. Contact her at (208) 377-6428, or @CynthiaSewell on Twitter.