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Former Obama Counsel Acquitted of Lying to Government

Greg Craig, right, former White House counsel to former President Barack Obama, walks into a federal courthouse for his trial, in Washington, Aug. 22, 2019.

Prominent Washington lawyer Greg Craig was found not guilty of lying to the Justice Department about work he did for the government of Ukraine in a case that arose from the special counsel’s Russia investigation and that centered on the lucrative world of foreign lobbying.

The jury deliberated for less than a day before clearing Craig, a White House counsel in the Obama administration, of a single count of making false statements to federal investigators.

The swift verdict on Wednesday was a setback to the Justice Department’s crackdown on lobbyists who do unregistered work for foreign governments and came as prosecutors have been ramping up enforcement of a decades-old law meant to police foreign influence and promote transparency. U.S. officials hoped a conviction would demonstrate an aggressive approach to lobbyists who fail to register their foreign work or who give false information to the Justice Department to avoid identifying themselves as a foreign agent, as Craig was alleged to have done.

But the jury rejected the theory of the case in a matter of hours. One juror told reporters that while some members found some of Craig’s actions unseemly, all agreed he hadn’t broken the law.

Craig hugged his attorneys after the verdict was read and, outside the courthouse, thanked the jury for “doing justice in this case.”

His attorney, William Taylor, said the jury reached the only possible verdict it could have reached and called the case a tragedy and a disgrace.

“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 said.

The prosecution was an offshoot of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which besides examining whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election also looked into the international business dealings of multiple Trump associates. Among them was former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who years earlier did consulting work for the government of Ukraine and connected with Craig and his law firm on a multimillion-dollar project that prosecutors say was meant to improve Ukraine’s standing in the international community.

Craig and the law firm — Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — were commissioned to produce a report on the trial of Ukrainian opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko, a political opponent of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, a Manafort patron. Prosecutors contend that Ukraine, eager to bolster its global image, wanted the report to conclude that the trial was fair and not politically motivated.

But Craig, who testified in his own defense, said the actual report identified significant flaws in Tymoshenko’s trial and that he did not register as a foreign agent because he did not view himself as doing the bidding of the Ukrainian government.

The case against him centered on conversations he had with Western reporters in advance of the report’s release, and whether those interactions should have required him to register his work under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The 1938 law, enacted to unmask Nazi propaganda, requires people to disclose to the Justice Department when they advocate, lobby or perform public relations work in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign government or political entity. It is meant to allow Americans to know when foreign entities are trying to influence public opinion or policymakers.

Though violations of the law rarely result in prosecutions, Mueller used the statute in multiple criminal cases, including against Manafort.

Craig was not charged with failing to register under the law, known as FARA, but rather with lying to Justice Department lawyers who asked him and the firm about the work as they sought to determine whether it required registration. Prosecutors tried to prove that Craig was involved in shaping the media rollout of the report — an activity that may have required him to register — but Craig insisted on the witness stand that he was honest when he said his interactions with journalists were solely aimed at correcting the way the document was being mischaracterized and spun in Ukraine’s favor.

Craig, who is now retired, has represented many powerful political figures in his decades-long legal career. He worked on President Bill Clinton’s impeachment defense, and represented former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and James Cartwright, a retired general and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Craig also served as an adviser to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

One juror, Michael Meyer, 60, said he was agitated that prosecutors, including Mueller, had devoted resources and attention to the case given the more serious allegations that he said were illuminated by the special counsel’s work.

“I just could not understand why so many resources of the government were put into this when, in fact, actually the republic itself is at risk,” Meyer said. “I was deeply offended personally ... that this particular case was brought against this particular man.”