WASHINGTON (AP) – A prominent Washington lawyer testified Wednesday that he never misled the Justice Department about his work for the government of Ukraine as he sought to challenge allegations that his legal services crossed a line into foreign lobbying.
Greg Craig took the stand in his own defense in a case that emerged as an offshoot of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and that has spotlighted the lucrative universe of foreign lobbying in Washington. The criminal prosecution, part of a Justice Department crackdown on unregistered lobbyists working in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments, marks a dramatic fall for the now-retired attorney who previously served as White House counsel in President Barack Obama’s administration and has represented a litany of high-profile clients.
Though it’s unusual for defendants to testify on their own behalf and subject themselves to cross-examination, Craig’s testimony appeared vital to rebut allegations that he was part of a public relations campaign for the Ukrainian government and lied to the Justice Department about it.
The case centers on a 2012 report, commissioned by Ukraine and completed by Craig and his then-law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, that reviewed the criminal prosecution of Ukraine’s opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. Craig said the report identified significant flaws with the handling of Tymoshenko’s case. That conclusion went against the interests of the Ukrainian government, which wanted the trial to be depicted as fair in order to counter widespread criticism of the proceedings that damaged its standing in the world.
Craig said he discussed the report’s findings with Western journalists, including from The New York Times, only because he was concerned that it would otherwise be portrayed in Ukraine’s favor. He testified that because his position was contrary to that of the Ukrainian government, he did not view himself as a foreign agent and did not think it necessary to register as one with the Justice Department.
“It was important to me that the reports in the newspapers, that the media, accurately described the work that we had done and the report that we had written,” Craig said. “Otherwise, it would appear that we were just writing whatever Ukraine wanted us to write. That wasn’t true. We were an independent group of lawyers who had conducted this investigation and evaluated the fairness of the trial.”
He said in the run-up to the public release of the report, representatives of Ukraine pressed him so often for edits or changes that he grew exasperated. In an email to colleagues displayed for the jury, he wrote, “I am close to telling them to pound sand and if they don’t want to publish it, so be if it. If they want to publish it and then criticize, so be it.”
The Justice Department enforces the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which was enacted in 1938 to unmask Nazi propaganda in the United States. It requires people to disclose to the department when they advocate, lobby or perform public relations work in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign government or political entity. The goal is to ensure that Americans know if a particular viewpoint represented in a newspaper advertisement or lobbying campaign is sponsored by a foreign power.
Craig is charged with misleading the Justice Department’s FARA unit when it approached the firm with concerns that it should have registered for its Ukraine work.
Prosecutors have said Craig adamantly resisted registering because he was concerned it would hurt his chances to get future U.S. government jobs. But Craig testified Wednesday that he was actually reluctant because he thought registration would have harmed his report’s credibility, and would have made it look like its conclusions were shaped by the Ukraine government.
“The independence of the conclusions was absolutely vital. We had to be able to make our own judgment as to whether or not, through the prism of the Western due process principles, she had gotten a fair trial,” Craig said. “We were zealous in our defense of our independence when it came to those conclusions.”
Though Craig defended that decision, Skadden – one of the largest law firms in the world – agreed in January to pay more than $4.6 million as it publicly acknowledged that it failed to report its work.
Craig insisted that he was honest when the firm told the department that his interaction with the media was to correct mischaracterizations of the report rather than to proactively elicit news coverage of it, or advise the government of Ukraine on a press strategy.
“Did you ever lie to FARA?” defense lawyer William Taylor asked Craig.
“I did not,” Craig replied.
“Did you ever intentionally leave something out of a letter or meeting that they had asked you to provide?” Taylor asked.
“No,” he replied.
Craig is regarded as one of the most prominent attorneys in Washington, with clients including former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and James Cartwright, a retired general and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Craig was Obama’s first White House counsel, helped defend President Bill Clinton during impeachment proceedings and also served as an adviser to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
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