NEW YORK – While considerable attention has been drawn to the FBI's investigation of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for his involvement in Ukrainian politics, the FBI has been investigating the Podesta Group's relationship to the Ukrainian government and the alleged corruption by the party of former president Victor Yanukovych.
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The Podesta Group is the lobbying and public-relations firm founded in 1998 by brothers Tony and John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.
John Podesta, who no longer is employed by the firm, is a former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. He also was the founder in 2003 of the Center for American Progress. CAP is a George Soros-funded liberal policy think tank that influences both the Obama administration and the Clinton presidential campaign.
Podesta also stepped in for several months in 2011 as CEO of the Clinton Foundation after Bruce Lindsey suffered a stroke.
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Among its activities in the region, the Podesta Group has lobbied on behalf of a state-controlled Russian bank accused in Ukraine of terrorist ties. And the firm successfully lobbied Hillary Clinton's State Department to approve a sale that effectively gave Russia control of 20 percent of uranium in the U.S.
Establishment media attention, however, has focused on the contract Manafort’s K Street firm Davis, Manafort & Freedman made in 2007 with Yanukovych’s political party, the Party of Regions,
to perform an “extreme makeover,” repositioning the party image from a “haven for Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs” to a mainstream organization.
On Feb. 21, 2014, Russian leader Vladimir Putin helped then-President Yanukovych to flee violent protests seeking to oust him from office. Yanukovych has been in Russia since then, trying desperately to restore himself to power in Kiev.
In Manafort’s case, opponents have failed to document he ever received $12.7 million in approximately 22 previously undisclosed cash payments from Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party as supposedly documented by “black ledger” entries revealed by Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Yet, the “evidence” was sufficient for New York Times reporters to conclude that Manafort had hidden, back-channel ties to Putin financed by under-the-table payments arranged via Ukraine.
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From there, the Democratic Party narrative charges Manafort never registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department. However, registration would have been required only if he was contracted with the Ukrainian government, not with a political party in the Ukraine.
Manafort's opponents contend he transferred his close relationship with Putin, via Yanukovych, to the Trump campaign.
From there, the Democratic Party narrative suggests Manafort’s relationship with the Kremlin allowed him to position the Trump campaign to receive a dump of hacked emails that embarrassed the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party. The emails exposed the efforts Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to rig the primaries for Hillary Clinton.
But the Democratic Party narrative is thrown into disarray if it turns out the Podesta Group has tighter and more easily documentable financial ties to Russia than Manafort.
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FBI investigates Podesta Group’s Russian ties
In August, the Podesta Group retained legal counsel regarding its work on behalf of the European Centre for Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based non-profit closely linked to the Party of Regions.
CNN reported Aug. 19 the Podesta Group had issued a statement affirming the firm has retained the boutique Washington-based law firm Caplin & Drysdale “to determine if we were misled by the Centre for a Modern Ukraine or any other individuals with potential ties to foreign governments or political parties.”
The Podesta Group said that when the Centre became a client, it "certified in writing that 'none of the activities of the Centre are directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed or subsidized in whole or in part by a government of a foreign country or a foreign political party.'"
"We relied on that certification and advice from counsel in registering and reporting under the Lobbying Disclosure Act rather than the Foreign Agents Registration Act,” the Podesta Group said.
In breaking the story that the Podesta Group had hired Caplin & Drysdale, Buzzfeed.com reported Aug. 19 that both the Podesta Group and Manafort’s D.C. political firm were working under contract with the same group advising Yanukovych and his Ukrainian Party of Regions, European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.
In December 2013, Reuters reported the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine paid $900,000 to the Podesta Group for a two-year contract aimed at improving the image of the Yanukovych government in the United States, working with key congressional Democrats.
Russian bank accused of terrorist ties
Among the revelations made public through the 11.5 million documents leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists detailing the legal and financial arrangements behind secretive, offshore banking transactions dating back to the 1970s was the disclosure Russia’s largest bank, the state-owned Sherbank, uses the Podesta Group as its registered lobbyist in Washington.
Former National Security Agency analyst and counter-intelligence officer John R. Schindler wrote in an April 7 article titled “Panama Papers Reveal Clinton’s Kremlin Connection": “Sberbank (Savings Bank in Russian) engaged the Podesta Group to help its public image – leading Moscow financial institutions not exactly being known for their propriety and wholesomeness – and specifically to help lift some of the pain of sanctions placed on Russia in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, which has caused real pain to the country’s hard-hit financial sector."
Schindler said it's "hardly surprising that Sberbank sought the help of Democratic insiders like the Podesta Group to aid them in this difficult hour, since they clearly understand how American politics work.”
“The question is why the Podesta Group took Sberbank’s money,” Schindler asked. “That financial institution isn’t exactly hiding in the shadows – it’s the biggest bank in Russia, and its reputation leaves a lot to be desired. Nobody acquainted with Russian finance was surprised that Sberbank wound up in the Panama Papers.”
Schindler noted that since the 1990s, Sberbank has grown to be Russia’s dominant bank, controlling nearly 30 percent of Russia’s aggregate banking assets and employing a quarter of a million people. The majority stockholder in Sberbank is Russia’s Central Bank, making Sberbank functionally an arm of the Russian government, though officially it is a private institution.
“Certainly Western intelligence is well acquainted with Sberbank, noting its close relationship with Vladimir Putin and his regime. Funds moving through Sberbank are regularly used to support clandestine Russian intelligence operations, while the bank uses its offices abroad as cover for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR,” Schindler pointed out.
A NATO counterintelligence official explained that Sberbank, which has outposts in almost two dozen foreign countries, “functions as a sort of arm of the SVR outside Russia, especially because many of its senior employees are ‘former’ Russian intelligence officers.” Inside the country, Sberbank has an equally cozy relationship with the Federal Security Service or FSB, Russia’s powerful domestic intelligence agency.
the Moscow Times reported in August 2014 Ukraine opened criminal proceedings against Sberbank and 13 other banks on suspicion of “financing terrorism.”
Schindler noted the Ukrainian criminal investigation concluded Sberbank had distributed millions of dollars in illegal aid to Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine, with the bank serving as “a witting supporter of Russian aggression against Ukraine.”
In April, the Washington Free Beacon published the lobbying registration form the Podesta Group filed with the U.S. government proving Sberbank had contracted with the Podesta Group to advance their interests with banking, trade and foreign relations.
The Free Beacon further reported that according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium of journalists exploring the Panama Papers leak, Sberbank and Troika Dialog have ties to companies used by members of Putin’s inner circle to funnel state resources into lucrative private investments.
“Some of these companies were initially connected to the Troika Dialog investment fund, which was controlled and run by Sberbank after the bank bought the Troika Dialog investment bank. Troika and Sberbank declined to comment,” the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project concluded in a report published in April 2016, the Free Beacon reported.
In March, Politico reported the Podesta Group registered to lobby for the U.S. subsidiary of Sherbank to see if relief could be obtained for the bank in the easing of U.S. sanctions against Russia for its role in the Ukraine conflict.
Podesta Group and Russian uranium scam
In August, Breitbart reported the Podesta Group was paid a total of $180,000 according to public records for the consulting work done under contract with the Russia-controlled firm Uranium One in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
The Daily Caller reported in April 2015 that the Podesta Group was to lobby the State Department while Hillary was secretary of state, with $40,000 of the total paid to lobby the State Department, the Senate and the National Security Council on “international mining projects.”
As first documented in Peter Schweizer’s bestselling book “Clinton Cash” and confirmed in Jerome Corsi’s “Partners in Crime: The Clinton’s Scheme to Monetize the White House,” Uranium One directed millions to the Clinton Foundation as the Russian government gained ownership of the company.
New York Times reporters Jo Becker and Mike McIntire, in an article titled “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal,” documented the tie between the Russians and the Clinton Foundation as the Uranium One deal evolved.
“As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation,” the Times said.
“Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million,” the New York Times report continued. “Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors. Other people with ties to the company made donations as well.”
Becker and McIntire further noted that shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Bill Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.
CIFUS is the acronym for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the inter-agency committee of the U.S. government, operating out of the U.S. Treasury, that is responsible to review and authorize transactions of a U.S. business that could result in a foreign person or entity undermining U.S. national security interests.
As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was a member of CIFUS, and she was the only presidential candidate in 2008 to make an issue of the importance of strengthening CIFUS to protect U.S. economic sovereignty and national security.
In October 2010, CIFUS reviewed and approved the Rosatom acquisition of majority control in Uranium One before the deal was done.
In 2013, Rosatom acquired all remaining shares of Uranium One. Becker and McIntire estimated that by 2015, after getting CIFUS approval, the Russians ended up controlling one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States.