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ALEXANDRIA, VA — The judge presiding over the federal bank and tax fraud case against Paul Manafort on Friday declined to release the names of the jurors serving in the trial.

Judge T.S. Ellis cited threats jurors have received over the course of the trial, which begun about three weeks ago.

“I don’t feel right” about releasing the names, Ellis said.

Ellis was responding to a lawyer representing several media organizations that are seeking to unseal records in the case — including the identities of the jurors, transcripts of bench conferences between lawyers and the judge and a third category that is under seal because it relates to an ongoing investigation. Ellis did not specify the nature of the investigation.

Matthew Kelley, the lawyer representing the news organizations, argued in a hearing on the sealed records that there should be a presumption of openness when it comes to the names of the jurors. Kelley said there had not been any specific threats against the jurors, to which Ellis shot back, “I can tell you there have.”

Ellis added that he has also received threats, and is traveling with a U.S. marshall out of fear for his personal safety.

While the judge expressed sympathy with the media organizations’ desire for records to be available to the public, Ellis said if the court releases the names of the jurors, it could preclude people from participating in future “cases with notoriety.”

Manafort was in the courtroom during the hearing.

The jury continued to deliberate for a second day Friday. Late Thursday, the jury sought clarification on several issues related to the charges against Manafort.

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

 

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A liberal veterans group is suing to block the influence of three outside advisers who have been secretly influencing the Department of Veterans Affairs from Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida.

ProPublica reported last week that the advisers — Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz and Washington lawyer Marc Sherman — have been shaping VA personnel and policy decisions despite having no official role or relevant expertise.

The trio, sometimes referred to as the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” is failing to disclose its activities as required by federal law, according to a lawsuit filed today in federal court in Washington, D.C., by VoteVets, a liberal activist group that says it represents 500,000 supporters.

The Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, is a Watergate-era sunshine law that requires federal agencies to inform the public when they consult outside experts. VoteVets wants a judge to order the Mar-a-Lago Crowd to disclose records of its activities and cease influencing the VA until it complies with the law. The suit also asks that future meetings of the group be opened to public participation and that minutes of its meetings be kept.

“This group has been operating in the dark,” said Will Fischer, VoteVets’ director of government relations. “Our goal in bringing this lawsuit is to bring these activities to light and make sure our members, veterans and military families are able to see what’s going on with our VA and the people directing the activities of our VA.”

The VA referred questions about the lawsuit to the Justice Department, which didn’t answer a request for comment. In a statement, a spokeswoman for Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz responded: “We have watched with concern as media outlets — including ProPublica — have misrepresented our actions and used selective emails to paint a distorted picture of our efforts to help the VA and America’s veterans.” The statement asserted that none of the group’s “volunteer efforts,” which it characterized as “recommendations” made in response to requests from the VA, were conducted in secret and that the group didn’t attempt to develop policy or influence personnel decisions.

VoteVets is represented by Democracy Forward, an activist group that challenges actions by the Trump administration. The group has brought similar lawsuits against a hunting council at the Interior Department and an infrastructure panel at the departments of Transportation and Commerce. In the latter case, a judge granted initial discovery.

“It looks like what was happening here was a group of people giving collective advice to the VA, which is precisely the kind of case where FACA should apply,” said John Bies, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the Obama administration. Courts, he added, have deemed similar government committees to be subject to FACA in the past.

FACA claims have been extensively litigated for decades, with occasional successes for plaintiffs. For example, in 1994, a court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service not to use a scientific report that was prepared without conforming to FACA, and in 2006, a court found that a panel doing an assessment for the Forest Service did amount to an advisory committee under FACA and had to disclose documents. But the two best-known cases brought under the law were ultimately unsuccessful: challenges to first lady Hillary Clinton’s health care task force in 1993 and Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force in 2002.

VoteVets’ complaint cites ProPublica’s investigation and documents that the news organization obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to show how Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman met regularly and weighed in on VA decisions from negotiating a contract for electronic health records to outsourcing medical services to private providers.

“Their statement to ProPublica confirms they saw themselves as operating as a group to provide advice and recommendations to the VA,” said Adam Grogg, the lead lawyer on the case. “The publicly available material puts this squarely within the kinds of cases where courts have acknowledged this is a de facto federal advisory committee.”

ProPublica’s reporting also prompted congressional Democrats to open an investigation, call for hearings, request a probe by the VA’s internal watchdog and call on the VA secretary to cut ties with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

 

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A verdict could come at any moment in the Alexandria, Virginia federal courtroom where former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is being tried on a slew of tax and bank fraud charges.

Prosecutors rested their case on Monday after 10 days of testimony from dozens of witnesses. Manafort’s lawyers said Tuesday that they would call none, alleging that the government “cannot meet that burden” of proof that would move a jury to issue a guilty verdict.

The trial yielded fresh evidence about favor-trading in the Trump campaign, even in its final days. The government released emails that showed that days after a Chicago bank gave Manafort a $9.5 million loan, Manafort emailed Jared Kushner recommending that the bank’s CEO serve as Army secretary in the Trump administration. The CEO, Steve Calk, had sent Manafort a ranked list of the government positions he wanted.

While he’s consistently distance himself from Manafort since his indictment, President Donald Trump on Friday expressed some sympathy for his former campaign manager, defensively telling reporters that Manafort is “happens to be a very good person” and that it’s “very sad what they’ve done” to him.

Pressure is building against longtime Trump ally Roger Stone. Robert Mueller’s prosecutors are looking through emails he sent threatening onetime associate Randy Credico for denying serving as the middle-man between Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Credico was subpoenaed to testify before Mueller’s grand jury on Sept. 7.

As part of her bridge-burning book tour, ex-reality star and White House official Omarosa claimed that she’s been interviewed by Mueller’s team. Citing no evidence, she alleged that Trump “absolutely” knew about the Clinton campaign’s stolen emails before WikiLeaks began publishing them in the summer of 2016. Omarosa said she also handed over to Mueller some of the secretly recorded conversations she’s been eagerly sharing with the media.

Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said that the President won’t agree to an interview with Mueller after Sept. 1 out of concerns that he’d be interfering with the midterms. Giuliani said they’re also willing to go to the Supreme Court to fight any subpoena requiring Trump to testify.

Former FBI official Peter Strzok was officially fired, months after anti-Trump texts were found on his cell phone. Trump said that the Hillary Clinton email probe, which Strzok helped carry out, should be “redone” now that he was gone.

Trump also stripped another critic, former CIA director John Brennan, of his security clearance. The White House initially citied national security concerns prompted by Brennan’s “erratic” behavior. Trump then told the Wall Street Journal he did so because of Brennan’s involvement in the Russia “witch hunt.”

George Papadopolous, whose drunken rants are widely credited for the launch of the Russia probe, was thrust back into the spotlight Thursday, when his wife Simona Mangiante said she wants Papadopolous to scrap his deal with Mueller.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Intelligence Committee efforts to investigate financial matters related to the Russia probe have been stymied by the Treasury Department, which has ignored and refused records requests.

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President Donald Trump on Friday expressed sympathy for his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort while a jury at a federal court in Virginia deliberates the case.

“I don’t talk about that now,” Trump said from the South Lawn when asked an inaudible question about Manafort. “I think the whole Manafort trial is very sad. When you look at what’s going on there, I think it’s a very sad day for our country. He worked for me for a very short period of time. And you know what? He happens to be a very good person. I think it’s very sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort.”

The jury is currently deliberating whether Manafort is guilty of financial fraud crimes related to his use of foreign bank accounts. 

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