GSPM Professor Weighs in on Special Prosecutor Indictments

Steven Billet, a former Washington lobbyist, says the charges facing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort are significant.

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Steven Billet, director of GSPM Legislative Affairs Program.
October 30, 2017

Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III has indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates on charges that they conspired to launder money, made false statements in filing federal income taxes and on forms required when working as a lobbyist for a foreign government and other charges. The charges are the first to come from Mr. Mueller’s investigation of the Russian government’s interference in the U.S. 2016 elections. Steven Billet, director of the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management Legislative Affairs master’s program and a former longtime Washington lobbyist, sat down with GW Today to talk about the indictments.

Q: The question that many outside of Washington insiders want to know is if the Manafort and Gates indictments have any relationship to the investigation of the Russian government interfering in 2016 U.S. elections?

A: The indictments cover periods when Manafort was Donald Trump’s campaign manager. Gates continued to serve on the campaign beyond Manafort’s departure. The alleged crimes include activities that took place around the time when Manafort served as campaign manager. This morning we found out, in addition, that a campaign operative for the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, perjured himself about having contact with Russians during the campaign. He pled guilty in October. Clearly, Mueller has reason to pursue the possible connection between the campaign and Russia.

These investigations are often complex and multi-layered. This may be the first round of charges. The news about Papadopoulos would seem to support those suspicions.

Q: How serious are conspiracy against the United States and unregistered agent of a foreign principal charges?

A: I think that the conspiracy charge can carry up to a five-year sentence. The same goes for the failure to register. Both include substantial fines. When you add up all the charges in the indictment, the possible jail terms are considerable. The actual indictment also includes an intent on the part the government to seize any property that was involved. Manafort bought a number of properties with money he tried to hide in Cypriot banks. These would be confiscated.

You should also understand that the lobbying registration law that applies in this instance is the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). These are not the same laws that apply when a lobbyist advocates on behalf of a U.S. client before the Congress.

Q: This doesn't help the perception of Washington lobbyists among the masses. How much of the regulation of lobbyists rests with their honestly providing information to regulators?

A: Yes, this is horrible for the reputation of lobbyists.  Lobbyists really have to mess things up to get indicted. The current system does, indeed, rely on individuals coming forward and registering under the Foreign Agent Registration Act as required under the law. Unfortunately, there is little monitoring and oversight of lobbying that is done on behalf of foreign interests.

Q: Is it safe or fair for people to draw conclusions about Washington lobbyists based on the Manafort and Gates charges? 

A: I have known hundreds of lobbyists in Washington who conduct their business in an honest and upright manner. Regrettably, people draw their conclusions about the occupation from infamous guys like Abramoff and Manafort.