Investigation

The Brooklyn Bloggers Who Brought Down Paul Manafort

Katia Kelly first noticed the brownstone that belonged to Paul Manafort. Then Matt Termine and Julian Russo’s investigations into Manafort’s property deals led to his indictment.

President Donald Trump’s indicted former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, owes his criminal legal troubles, in no small measure, to three ordinary Brooklynites.

One of them, Katia Kelly, is a 56-year-old grandmother who photographs and writes about her Carroll Gardens neighborhood on her blog, Pardon Me for Asking. Last February, Kelly revealed that a dilapidated-looking brownstone that was creating an eyesore two blocks from her home is owned by the Washington super-lobbyist.

“I don’t know what to make of all this,” Kelly wrote on Feb. 16, after examining public records of the 2012 sale of the house and a 2013 renovation permit. “Maybe one of my readers can interpret these transactions?”

Brooklyn residents and corporate lawyers Matt Termine, who lives a 15-minute walk from the Manafort house, and Julian Russo, who lives in south Brooklyn several miles away, took Kelly up on her invitation; through dogged study of public records of purchases and mortgages during their off-hours and weekends, Termine and Russo uncovered a series of unusual loans and other financial transactions involving the Carroll Gardens property and several others owned by Manafort.

In February they launched their own blog, 377 Union—named for the address of the Union Street brownstone that Katia Kelly first identified as Manafort’s—a scoop that was recognized by The New Yorker as Manafort’s legal problems snowballed in March; “I was thrilled that this big publication would recognize a local blogger,” Kelly said.

“It looks like the dismantling of the Trump administration—I hope, I hope,” Kelly told The Daily Beast a few hours after a federal court unsealed special counsel Robert Mueller’s 31-page, 12-count grand jury indictment against Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates, accusing them of tax evasion and money-laundering. (Both men pleaded not guilty.)

“It’s not a bit too soon,” Kelly added, speaking with the accent of her native Germany. “Justice does take sometimes awhile, but I’m definitely not surprised, from the moment I realized he was laundering money through my neighborhood. It took me awhile to wrap my head around.”

Like a majority of her neighbors in the New York City Council district once represented by Bill de Blasio, Kelly has little use for the 45th president: “I think this country has a lot more qualified and much more decent people to chose from for president. And I think Trump is going to be a little hiccup in an otherwise amazing history of this country.”

The 35-year-old Russo, in a joint interview with Termine, said about Monday’s news: “I think it’s very exciting if not too surprising… This feels today like sort of a climactic culmination of all this time we spent along with other people we connected with through our website.”

Termine, 33, noted that three of the properties and transactions they blogged about—especially 377 Union Street—are included in the indictment.

When asked if they had been contacted by Mueller’s investigators in recent months, Russo fell silent, and Termine said, “We’re actually not able to comment on that”—the moral equivalent of “yes.”

Neither lawyer, perhaps needless to say, is a Trump supporter.

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“All you have to do is read my Twitter feed,” Termine quipped.

“I’m not a fan,” Russo acknowledged.

“It was really a team effort,” Termine said about their investigation, adding that Kelly “deserves a lot of credit” for bringing to light information that ultimately prompted the launch of their own blog and follow-up stories in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other mainstream media outlets.

Kelly, the mother of two adult children, said she grew up the daughter of a Michelin Tires executive in Karlsruhe, Germany, and Clermont-Ferrand, France—the Michelin company headquarters—and in 1986 moved with her parents to the United States when her father was transferred to Michelin’s operations in South Carolina.

She ended up marrying Glenn Kelly, the owner of a Brooklyn-based office-furniture company, and launched her blog around 10 years ago.

“I thought, let me just go and play around with it,” she said. “The time I started the blog coincided with a real building boom in Carroll Gardens, and I decided to get more involved with the issues in the community. I realized that the community meetings were very important, but people weren’t there. I had just raised two kids and I realized kids have homework, and parents can’t just run off to any of these meetings, so let me go and give my opinion on what happened. So I started chronicling the meetings—it was my giveback to a neighborhood that I’ve lived in for 32 years.”

Kelly said she came upon her Manafort scoop in February during one of her daily strolls around the neighborhood.

“I was walking around with my camera, as I do on most days—just the local blogger walking down the street—and I just happened to walk by this house and wondered, ‘What’s going on here?’ It looked dilapidated, like there had been some construction that had just stopped.”

Kelly started taking pictures of the “ratty-looking” brownstone—an unwelcome sight on a house-proud block lined with meticulously maintained townhouses—and a resident who lived two or three doors down, clearly not thrilled with the mess, stopped her and said, “Guess who owns this house? Trump’s campaign manager.” 

“I guess she just wanted to get it off her chest,” Kelly recalled. “It was just a little talk on the corner.”

After her blog post, Kelly said she “corresponded quite a bit” with the “377 Union Guys,” as Russo and Termine came to be known, “but I never met them personally.”

Diving into Manafort’s real-estate transactions after Kelly’s blog post, one of the first red flags Russo and Termine noticed was that 377 Union Street was initially purchased for cash and then remortgaged by the Federal Savings Bank, whose chief executive officer happened to be Trump economic adviser Stephen Calk.

It was, at best, a suspicious coincidence that smacked of self-dealing, the lawyers said.

“We did some analysis of the patterns we were seeing,” Termine said, noting that over the weekend they posted a comprehensive chronology of Manafort’s and his wife Kathleen’s real-estate and financial transactions dating from 1981 to the present.

After uncovering Manafort’s connection to the loan from Calk on the 377 Union Street house, Termine said, “over the course of the next six to nine months we posted more” and eventually made contacts with a growing network of citizen-investigators who shared information on the various transactions—essentially crowd-sourcing scoops on the former Trump campaign chairman’s strange financial history.

“It’s not some kind of bold pronouncement about the state of journalism being problematic,” Russo said, explaining the group effort of amateurs, “but there is an enthusiasm on on the part of the public to participate more directly in news gathering and news-making, and this development could strengthen and grow—like grass-roots organizing in politics.”

Termine and Russo, energized by their impact, said they have no plans to cease their blogging.

Katia Kelly, meanwhile, said she was speaking from Surfside Beach, South Carolina, where she was readying a family-owned condominium for the winter.

“While I’m talking to you I’m cleaning the carpet,” she said. “That’s what I’m doing today.”