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GOP Pushes an Impeachment Conspiracy That the FBI Debunked Years Ago

Bank records cited by the FBI show that Manafort received some of the money that Ukraine’s “Black Ledger” alleged he was paid.

Adam RawnsleyNov. 18, 2019 4:43 AM ET

It’s called the “Black Ledger.” And it’s the account of corrupt payments that allegedly shows Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government paying its cronies, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The ledger has surfaced once again because Trump associates have pursued a conspiracy theory that the ledger was a forgery and part of an effort by Ukraine to meddle in the 2016 election against Donald Trump.

Unfortunately for those pushing the theory, the FBI has already published documents showing it had bank records corroborating the ledger’s claims two years before Trump even ran for president. So what do the records show and why are they important?

Welcome to Rabbit Hole.

Are you taking notes on a criminal conspiracy? The Black Ledger first became famous in August 2016, when The New York Times reported that investigators at Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency had found Manafort listed as the recipient of up to $12.7 million in payments from the political party of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The Times described the money as an “illegal off-the-books” payment scheme uncovered by Ukrainian law enforcement, and the article ended up costing Manafort his job with the Trump campaign. He resigned as campaign chairman shortly after it came out.

Manafort has consistently claimed that the Black Ledger was a forgery. Even though the former lobbyist was convicted on tax and bank fraud charges related to the millions he took from Ukrainian oligarchs and hid in offshore accounts, Trump defenders have pushed the idea that the Black Ledger was a forgery and was published in order to interfere in the 2016 election to the Republican’s detriment.

Bank records: The problem for those who want to believe that the ledger is fake and therefore evidence of Ukrainian election-meddling is that FBI records and media reports have corroborated that at least some of the payments listed in the ledger actually made it to Manafort on or about the date they were listed. More important, court documents suggest the FBI may have asked Manafort about some of that money in 2014, two years before the ledger was published and two years before Trump became the Republican nominee.

When the FBI began investigating Manafort for tax, bank fraud, and lobbying offenses in 2017, prosecutors applied for a warrant to search his storage unit in Alexandria, Virginia. In a May 2017 affidavit, an FBI agent noted that media reports show a Black Ledger entry purporting to show a $750,000 payment to Manafort on Oct. 14, 2009. Additionally, according to the affidavit, “Bank records show that on or about October 15, 2009, a $750,000 payment was wired from an account in Kyrgyzstan at Asia Universal Bank in the name of [redacted] to a Wachovia bank belonging to Manafort.” 

The agent also wrote that “Bank records show three additional wire transfers totaling $2,487,500.00 from an account at Asia Universal Bank in the name [redacted]” to the Wachovia account of Davis Manafort in June 2009. No entries in the Black Ledger at that time, however, match the $2,487,500 transfer the FBI found wired to Manafort’s company bank account. 

The date on the invoice, Oct. 14, 2009, matches the date of the alleged $750,000 payment to Manafort listed on the Black Ledger.

The company names in the affidavit are redacted, but the date and amount on the $750,000 payment align with an invoice allegedly filled out by Manafort’s consulting company and found in his old office in Kyiv. In other words, it appears to be independent corroboration of the ledger.

Two months before the FBI filed its affidavit, Serhiy Leshchenko, a former anti-corruption activist and journalist, published what he said was an invoice found at the former Davis-Manafort consulting office in Kyiv. The document, written on letterhead purporting to be from the company, invoices a Belize registered company called Neocom Systems Limited for the sale of 501 computers in the amount of $750,000, requesting the money be paid to Manafort’s account at Wachovia. The date on the invoice, Oct. 14, 2009, matches the date of the alleged $750,000 payment to Manafort listed on the Black Ledger.

Manafort has disputed the invoice’s authenticity and called Leshchenko’s allegations “baseless.”

But when Ukrainian anti-corruption authorities looked into the Neocom invoice published by Leshchenko, they found that the company had been registered using the stolen identity of a Kyiv hairdresser. Investigators at Kyrgyzstan’s central bank also found that Neocom was a shell company “used for payments by Asia Universal Bank,” according to the Times. Asia Universal, you’ll recall, is the same bank from which FBI investigators found a $750,000 wire transfer to Manafort’s Wachovia account in 2009, a day after the date listed on the Black Ledger.  

The AP also managed to corroborate some of the FBI and media reporting about Black Ledger payments to Manafort. In April 2017, the wire service said it found financial records corroborating that Manafort had received both the October 2009 $750,000 Neocom payment, as well as an additional $455,249 alleged Black Ledger payment made in 2007. 

The 2014 interview: The May 2017 affidavit suggests that FBI officials interviewed Manafort about some payments he received from Asia Universal Bank in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. “Manafort said he had never heard of a company called [redacted],” an agent wrote about the questioning. 

So why was the FBI looking into Manafort’s business dealings in 2014, two years before the Black Ledger came to light and Trump became a candidate for the presidency? 2014 was the same year that Ukrainians ousted Manafort’s client Yanukovych as president of Ukraine. Yanukovych reportedly stole billions from the country before he fled to Russia and that year, the Obama administration’s Justice Department announced that it was trying to help the Ukrainian government recover some of that money and identify any Americans who might have been complicit in looting it.

It was in that context that the FBI interviewed Manafort and his assistant, Rick Gates, in 2014. As BuzzFeed first reported, Manafort’s banking activity had caused banks to file up to 23 suspicious activity reports in the previous decade, among them flagging suspicious transfers from a handful of countries, including Kyrgyzstan. “In hindsight, we could have nailed him then,” a law enforcement source told BuzzFeed about the early Manafort investigation.

Black Ledger truthers: The president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani took to Fox News in May as part of his effort to cast doubt on the origins of the Russia probe. In the interview, Giuliani claimed that Leshchenko, who published the alleged Manafort invoice, had “supplied a black book that was found to be fraudulent.” 

No one has ever proven that the Black Ledger is fraudulent and, as the media reports and court documents show, some of the payments in them have been corroborated. Giuliani’s also tried to paint Leshchenko as the sole source vouching for the ledger without noting that anti-corruption investigators in Ukraine, as well as FBI records and U.S. media reporting, have corroborated parts of it.  

Nonetheless, House Republicans have largely followed Giuliani’s lead in questioning during the impeachment hearings. Top House Intelligence Committee Republican Devin Nunes asked Ukraine chargé d’affaires William Taylor if he was aware that “Fusion GPS contractor Nellie Ohr testified to Congress that Leshchenko was a source for Fusion GPS’s operation to dirty up the Trump campaign, including the compilation of the Steele dossier on behalf of the DNC and the Clinton campaign.” 

Leshchenko has disputed the allegation of involvement with the Steele dossier, and the question also sidesteps any discussion of the evidence corroborating the ledger in an apparent effort to make Leshchenko, and not the ledger itself, a subject of scrutiny. 

In addition to House Republicans, conservative columnist John Solomon published a story in The Hill in June suggesting that the ledger was a fake. Solomon cited a number of other search warrant applications the FBI filled out on Manafort in which agents referred to media reporting about the Black Ledger. Solomon quoted law professor Alan Dershowitz saying that agents are supposed to cite primary rather than secondary evidence. The Hill column does not mention the May 2017 warrant in which the FBI refers to the Manafort bank records it has. 

Context: Aside from the specific evidence corroborating the Black Ledger, the claims of a Ukrainian conspiracy to frame Manafort and interfere in the 2016 election with it are at odds with what we know about Manafort generally. Manafort was convicted in August 2018 on tax and bank fraud charges related to the $55 million worth of money he made off of his Ukrainian consulting business and hid in offshore bank accounts and the $16 million in federal taxes the government says he failed to pay. Much like the alleged Black Ledger payment scheme, Manafort used a web of offshore companies in secretive offshore tax havens like Cyprus and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Nor is Manafort the only person listed in the Black Ledger who’s accused of taking money from Yanukovych. 

One of the politicians accused in the ledger of taking money is Mykhailo Okhendovsky, a former head of the Central Election Commission whose name appears beside $161,000 in alleged corrupt payments. Anti-corruption investigators claimed that handwriting experts matched a number of signatures and entries in the ledger to Okhendovsky and have recommended that he be prosecuted. 

Leshchenko told The Daily Beast that while Manafort may be the most prominent name in the ledger for Americans, he’s just a bit player in the document and the larger corrupt payment scheme laid out in the ledger. “It’s 800 pages of records of corruption in Ukraine, of members of parliament, judges, prosecutors, members of the central election commission. Manafort is mentioned only about 20 times, and there are 800 pages of records,” Leshchenko said. “Of course it’s not a conspiracy against Manafort. It’s unfortunately the reality of Ukrainian politics in Yanukovych’s time, when politicians were bribed and everything was for sale.”