The special counsel, Robert Mueller, has not yet presented evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with Russian agents to subvert the 2016 election. But he has already provided an instructive guide to the swampy world of corporations, law firms and Washington lobbying shops, and to how a tough prosecutor can bring some measure of justice to bear.
The bank- and tax-fraud indictment of President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, for instance, lifted a rock on manipulation that’s usually hidden.
Alex van der Zwaan, a former lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, wassentenced to 30 days in jail for lying to Mr. Mueller’s investigators about his conversations with Mr. Manafort’s associate Rick Gates about a Ukrainian businessman believed to be a Russian intelligence operative.
Wait, you say, Skadden Arps? One of the top law firms in the country? How did they get caught up in this?
It turns out that the firm was among the beneficiaries of $4 million in largess that Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates distributed several years ago in their efforts as “lobbyists” to promote the Moscow-backed regime that then controlled Ukraine. No less a luminary than the Skadden Arps partner Gregory Craig — who had been White House counsel for President Barack Obama — oversaw a report the firm commissioned that called the government’s prosecution of a dissident flawed but apprropiate.
The Obama State Department called that reportflawed and inappropriate. “Skadden Arps lawyers were obviously not going to find political motivation if they weren’t looking for it,” a department spokeswoman said. Last year the firm returned $567,000 to a new Ukrainian government, now unencumbered by Moscow ties.
The indictment also revealed that Mr. Manafort enlisted the help of the Democratic superlobbyistTony Podesta and his firm, the Podesta Group, to promote the corrupt former Ukrainian regime, even though Mr. Podesta did not register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The ensuing publicity helped destroy Mr. Podesta’s firm.
One Washington lawyer told The Times that this scrutiny raised concerns about the registration law and “a new emphasis on enforcement that perhaps folks didn’t think was happening or would happen.”
There’s a novel thought: enforcing laws on white collar crime.
Take the extensive money laundering Mr. Manafort is accused of undertaking with shell companies that hide ownership. How could he have expected to get away with it?
Perhaps he saw what happened when one of the world’s largest banks, HSBC, helped launder billions of dollars in drug proceeds for the Sinaloa cartel, for a financier for Al Qaeda and for others over nearly a decade. When they were caught, they only had to forfeit less than five weeks of profit. No bank employee was criminally charged.
Now consider the potential big fish in the special counsel’s investigation. Three years ago, about three months before Mr. Trump announced his candidacy for president, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network fined the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City $10 million for “willful and repeated violations of the Bank Secrecy Act” for failing to report suspicious transactions and failing to properly file currency transaction reports and keep proper records. The officials noted that the casino had “a long history of prior, repeated B.S.A. violations cited by examiners dating back to 2003.” The casino had been fined $477,700 in 1998. In other words, Mr. Trump’s casino helped launder money and no one was charged with a crime.
One-fifth of the condos owned by Mr. Trump in the United States were sold to shell companieslike those Mr. Manafort used, BuzzFeed News found. Since Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination, 70 percent of domestic real estate sales by his companies were to shell companies,USA Today has reported.
A Times investigation found that this sort of behavior is business as usual for many big developers, as shell companies with untraceable funds — not all with nefarious purposes — buy a disproportionate number of high-end condos in cities like New York. Nor is this simply a problem for global urban centers. A shell company obscured the purchase of a lobbyist’s luxurious home by the beleaguered administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, when he was an Oklahoma state senator in 2003.
The recent attention to Mr. Trump’s “personal attorney” Michael Cohen illuminated another not uncommon practice of the business world. One of Mr. Cohen’s specialties was keeping people quiet. He made hush money payments to the women in Mr. Trump’s life, including arranging for The National Enquirer to make “catch and kill” payments for the rights to salacious stories that were then never published.
The Associated Press reported that after it found out that The Enquirer paid $30,000 to a doorman who said that Mr. Trump had fathered a child with one of his housekeepers, the paper’s parent company threatened The A.P. with legal action.
Were those lawyers associates of the louche Mr. Cohen? Nope, they were from the firm of the legal paragon David Boies, who defended same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court and fought for Al Gore in the Florida recount debacle in 2000. Mr. Boies also worked to try to kill a New York Times report on women who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and, as counsel to the fraudulent blood-testing company Theranos,threatened to sue The Wall Street Journal to prevent a report that showed the company was a complete con. A “good guy” in a bad cause — business as usual. (Mr. Boies’ firm did work for the Times Company until The New Yorkerreported that the firm had arranged what Times officials called “a secret spying operation aimed at our reporting and our reporters” on the Weinstein story.)
Amid all the tawdry allegations in the Cohen affair, the president would have us believe he is holding high the banner of a sacred principle — attorney-client privilege. The United States attorney’s office in Manhattan was able to overcome the privilege and seize documents from Mr. Cohen after persuading a judge that evidence showed he had committed a crime, and was not just giving legal advice.
In the world of white-collar crime, though, business as usual has meant that the attorney-client privilege has often been a means to keep the law at bay. Companies have long used the privilege to shield information about misconduct. For some years in the Bush administration federal prosecutors cut deals in which companies waived the privilege. After a lobbying campaign by businesses and an adverse court ruling, though, the Justice Department barred the practice.
All this is an indictment of a criminal justice system that has fed the swamp in which Mr. Trump and his ilk thrive. Industrial-level fraud by America’s banks nearly brought the world economy to its knees in 2008, and no senior executive was even charged. This past week, witha billion dollars in new federal penalties for Wells Fargo, we were reminded that nobody has been hauled into court over a range of its sleazy practices one would expect from a boiler-room scam, not the nation’s third-largest bank.
In his book “The Chickenshit Club” — named for how James Comey, then a United States attorney, referred to prosecutors who never lost a case because they avoided ones they might not win — Jesse Eisinger documents how the Department of Justice has “lost the will and indeed the ability to go after the highest-ranking corporate wrongdoers.”
Mr. Mueller is showing prosecutors a better way to deal with white-collar crime.