Greg Craig found not guilty on foreign lobbying charge

Craig was WH counsel in 2009, 2010

By Katelyn Polantz, Sam Fossum and Kate Sullivan, CNN
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Greg Craig, former White House counsel to former President Barack Obama, departs from the U.S. District Courthouse following a hearing on April 15, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

(CNN) - Greg Craig, a top lawyer in the Obama administration, was acquitted by a federal jury in Washington on Wednesday afternoon of allegedly making a false statement to the Justice Department.

It was a stunning rebuke of the Justice Department's recent efforts to spin off a lobbying probe from the Mueller investigation into an equal opportunity comeuppance for a top former Democratic official.

The charge revolved around work Craig did with lobbyist Paul Manafort, who went on to become Donald Trump's 2016 campaign chairman, in 2012 regarding a report he wrote on Ukraine.

Following the verdict, Craig paced the hall of the federal courthouse, his face red, hugging friends and making phone calls to repeat to others, "Not guilty."

One of Craig's jurors, who said his name was Michael Meyer, approached him.

"I'm so grateful for your service. Thank you!" Meyer told Craig outside the courtroom, bowing to him with his hands clasped.

The juror told journalists as he left the courthouse that he was infuriated that special counsel Robert Mueller had wasted so much time on the topic "when the republic itself is under assault." (The Mueller team initially had handed the Craig case to federal prosecutors in Manhattan, before the US attorney in Washington took it on.)

The jury had deliberated for only about five hours Friday after a trial that lasted three weeks and a day.

Washington residents, whom the jury was drawn from, have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in recent elections -- making the prosecution of well-known high-ranking Democrats like Craig a potentially uphill battle before a jury. Some lawyers in Washington, including many who knew and worked with Craig, had criticized the case against him as being thin, and the Manhattan US attorney's office had decided not to pursue a charge because it believed it didn't have sufficient evidence.

Craig's attorney Bill Taylor latched onto the acquittal after the verdict, expressing disgust over the prosecution and hinting at political motives.

"This jury reached the only verdict it could possibly reach. The question that you need to ask isn't why this jury acquitted Greg Craig, but why the Department of Justice brought this case against an innocent man in the first place," Taylor told the press outside the courthouse. "Why, after the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York rejected this prosecution, did this Department of Justice decide it had to hound this man and his family without any evidence and without any purpose? It's a tragedy. It's a disgrace."

Craig also spoke to the media, thanking his family, the jury, his friends and his legal team. "I'm grateful to them in so many ways," he said.

Spokespeople for the Justice Department and District of Columbia US Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Prosecutors on the case didn't make public statements before leaving the courthouse.

The case was a high-profile one for a Justice Department unit that is cracking down on unregistered foreign lobbying.

Craig's indictment grew out of Mueller's investigation into Manafort's ties to Russia-connected Ukrainian politicians. Craig, President Barack Obama's White House counsel from 2009 to 2010, was the highest-ranking Democrat charged in connection with that probe.

The presentation of evidence concluded before Labor Day weekend with two days of Craig, 74, testifying in his own defense, defending his actions, parsing prosecutors' words and at the same time admitting he had made some mistakes.

The case boiled down to a question of whether Craig had been working at the direction of the Ukrainian government when he spoke to journalists. He had shared a copy of his work with David Sanger of The New York Times, for instance, in advance of the release of a report from his law firm on the trial of a Ukrainian politician.

Craig was charged with making a false statement to the Justice Department in describing and hiding that effort.

His charge carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison, though that length of time would have been an unlikely sentence.

The Ukrainian government had contracted with Craig's firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, paying the firm more than $4 million for the report, which was intended to be an independent assessment of the trial of the then-president's political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Manafort, then the top lobbyist for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, acted as a middleman throughout, orchestrating a network of public relations people and his associates to help spin the report.

Manafort is also known for admitting to illegal foreign lobbying for Ukraine and several financial crimes during the Mueller investigation, then flaming out as a Mueller cooperator after lying to investigators and a grand jury. He is serving a seven-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence. He was not called to testify against Craig, but his longtime deputy Rick Gates, also a Mueller cooperator, was.

"It was Manafort to Craig, and the orders went down from there," prosecutor Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez said in closing arguments Monday. The DC-based prosecutor, who inherited the case from Mueller, also delivered a plug for the foreign lobbying registration act, called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, of which the Justice Department is upping its enforcement and which Craig's case grew out of.

"If [Craig] had been truthful and honest, then the facts would come out. ... But none of it did at the time. This is why FARA matters," Campoamor-Sanchez said.

But Craig and his defense lawyers maintained that he would not have thrown away his sterling reputation in Washington by lying to the Justice Department. Craig's communications with reporters about the Ukraine report weren't part of the coordinated plan to spin coverage of the Ukrainian party in power, his lawyers argued.

"You heard it from the witness stand. He did not lie to the FARA unit," defense attorney Bill Murphy argued.

This story has been updated.

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