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Federal jury finds Paul Manafort guilty on eight counts



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Paul Manafort, on July 19, 2016, is at the Quicken Loans Arena for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

By Chris Megerian and Laura King
Los Angeles Times

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal jury convicted Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, of eight charges Tuesday in a trial for tax evasion, bank fraud and conspiracy, a victory for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in the first criminal trial brought by his office.

The jury of six men and six women deadlocked on 10 other charges on the 16th day of a high-profile trial that focused in part on Manafort's gilded lifestyle, making him a symbol of gaudy excess and greed in the Trump era.

Manafort, 69, was convicted on five counts of filing false tax returns, one count of not filing a report on a foreign bank account, and two counts of bank fraud; he could be sentenced to more than 60 years in prison. The judge plans to declare a mistrial on the other charges.

The case focused chiefly on Manafort's efforts to hide tens of millions of dollars from his work as a political consultant in Ukraine before he joined Trump's presidential campaign in March 2016. But evidence introduced at trial indicated some of the actions occurred as Manafort steered the candidate through the contentious Republican National Convention in Cleveland that summer.

Evidence also showed that after the election, Manafort tried to secure a Cabinet-level job in the Trump administration for a Chicago bank executive who had helped him get a $16-million loan in 2016 that prosecutors said was based on fraudulent documents. No job ultimately was arranged.

None of the charges cited Russia's interference in the 2016 election, the initial focus of Mueller's wide-ranging probe. But the verdict strengthens Mueller's hand as he spars with Trump's lawyers over whether the president will agree to an interview — or face a potential subpoena — in coming months.

The guilty verdict is also politically awkward for Trump, who has repeatedly condemned the Russia investigation as a "hoax" and last week praised Manafort as "a very good person." He recently complained that Manafort was being treated worse than Al Capone, the Prohibition-era gangster.

Manafort's defense lawyers chose not to present any witnesses or evidence, gambling instead that the jury would simply reject the government's case as unreliable or insufficient. Manafort confirmed to the judge that he would not take the stand.

Manafort faces another federal trial on related charges on Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C., and the judge in that case ordered him incarcerated in June after he was accused of attempted witness tampering.

Manafort was the latest reminder of the scandals that have swirled around Trump's senior staff almost since he took office.

The secretary of Health and Human Services and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency were forced out over ethical controversies, and other senior aides have faced harsh scrutiny. Trump's former national security advisor Michael T. Flynn pleaded guilty last year to lying to federal investigators, and Trump's former personal lawyer in New York was said to be discussing a plea deal in a federal investigation into bank fraud allegations.

Prosecutors prevailed despite frequent criticism from U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, a stern jurist who repeatedly questioned prosecution tactics in front of the jury. Ellis sought to limit testimony about Manafort's work in Ukraine and his opulent tastes, saying the details were not relevant to the legal question of whether he had evaded U.S. taxes.

Mueller's team twice filed formal motions asking Ellis to retract his comments. He agreed only once, telling the jury on Thursday to disregard an outburst during which he accused prosecutors of improperly allowing an expert witness to sit in the courtroom during testimony.

"This robe doesn't make me anything other than human, and I may have made a mistake," he said.

On Tuesday — the fourth day of deliberations — an hour-long flurry of activity before noon seemed to foreshadow a possible winding down of deliberations. The jury sent a note to the judge asking how to proceed "if we cannot come to consensus on a single count" of the 18-count indictment.

Before calling the jurors into the courtroom, Ellis informed counsel for both sides that he would only tell the jury to continue deliberating, but indicated that if they remained deadlocked on one or more counts, there was precedent for accepting a partial verdict.

"I may consider accepting what they have reached," he told the open court and the prosecutors and defense team, before the jury was brought in. "We will cross that bridge at that time."

About four hours later, the jury sent another note out saying they had deadlocked on 10 counts but reached a verdict on eight.

According to the special counsel's office, Manafort used more than 30 foreign bank accounts in Cyprus, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United Kingdom to evade U.S. taxes on more than $15 million while he was working for Ukraine's then-president Viktor Yanukovich and his political party from 2010 to 2014.

Prosecutors said he arranged foreign wire transfers to purchase custom-made clothing, including a $15,000 ostrich skin jacket and an $18,500 python skin jacket. The money also went for luxury cars, home renovations, expensive rugs and antiques, and elaborate landscaping services, including flowers in the shape of a "M" outside his 10-bedroom beachfront house in Bridgehampton, New York.

But when Yanukovich was ousted from power by a popular revolt in 2014 and fled to Moscow, Manafort's income abruptly dried up. Prosecutors said he then turned to bank fraud to pay his bills and stay financially afloat.

Richard W. Gates III, who worked with Manafort in Ukraine and on the Trump campaign, testified that he helped Manafort obtain more than $16 million in bank loans with falsified documents. Prosecutors said Manafort lied on applications to three banks.

Gates was a key figure during the trial, giving the jury an insider's account of Manafort's financial operations. He also served as a target for the defense, who blamed Gates for any financial wrongdoing.

Gates first met Manafort more than three decades ago, and they were indicted together in October. But Gates later cut a deal with Mueller's team in hopes of winning a more lenient sentence, and agreed to testify against his former boss.

Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy for helping Manafort with his financial schemes, and to making false statements to federal investigators, a charge that defense attorneys used to question his credibility during the trial. He also admitted on the stand to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort's company over a period of years.

Under questioning from defense attorney Kevin Downing, Gates did not deny the possibility that he also stole from Trump's inaugural committee, where he was the deputy chairman.

"I don't recall," he said. "It's possible."

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