Ukrainians Say FBI Questioning Them About Paul Manafort’s Past

Members of parliament and government agencies in Kiev have been investigating Trump’s former campaign manager for years. Now, they say, the feds are getting interested.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

KIEV—The Ukrainian parliamentarian Mustafa Nayyem says the FBI has come to him at last, asking about Paul Manafort, who had a long record as a political operative serving pro-Russian figures here before he became the campaign manager for Donald Trump last year.

Nayyem and other Ukrainian officials say they are not only willing to cooperate with the FBI, they have been trying to do that for years, but only recently did American law enforcement show any interest.

For its part, the FBI declined to comment on what now is an inquiry headed by its former director and now special counsel, Robert Mueller. But there is little question that Manafort is at or near the center of the narrative it is putting together about Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections and the extent of collusion, or not, between Moscow and members of Trump’s campaign team.

Much of this is, and likely will remain, murky. It is sometimes hard to distinguish at this juncture between what Manafort taught the Ukrainians and Russians, and what he may have learned from them as he helped elect Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency here in 2010, then allegedly helped to sow disastrous political divisions after Yanukovych was deposed in 2014. The use of bots to flood messages onto social media, for instance, was a major feature of Russian-backed actions in Ukraine. So, too, in the United States. That does not mean Manafort was involved in either of those bot storms.

Indeed, part of Manafort’s strategy for Yanukovych at one point, much to the chagrin of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was to promote the Ukrainian as a pro-European Union statesman. But Manafort’s reputation here is such that there’s almost nothing people would put past him, and extensive dossiers have been compiled by reporters and government officials looking into his activities.

Nayyem, for instance, began investigating what he calls the “dangerous business” of Paul Manafort more than a decade ago. Since the Maidan uprising of 2013 and 2014,  Nayyem has been called “the father of Ukraine’s revolution,” but back in 2006, he was a journalist, and he and his former colleagues at the well-respected Ukrainska Pravda newspaper began publishing investigative reports about the contracts between Ukraine’s then-prime minister, Victor Yanukovych, and Paul Manafort. When Yanukovych was elected Ukraine’s president in 2010, only to be overthrown by the Maidan revolution in 2014, that reporting intensified and there have been many revelations since.

So when the FBI met with Nayyem here a few weeks ago to ask about President Trump’s former campaign manager, Nayyem says, he felt relieved: Maybe now those in America wondering about the future of Trump’s presidency would take a look at the legacy left in Ukraine by Manafort, who did so much to get Trump elected.

Nayyem would not go into details about his meetings with the FBI, which may have taken place on his recent visit to Washington as well as here in Kiev. Through a spokesman, Manafort declined to answer questions or comment for this story.

Nayyem, noting that Manafort had arrived in Ukraine as a seasoned Washington political consultant with strong Republican ties, and also a record serving foreign dictators, told The Daily Beast that Manafort used what Nayyem called “destructive methods” both in Ukraine and in United States.

“We are not dealing here with some ordinary man. This case requires a deep and global international investigation, it concerns our core values,” said Nayyem.

When we talked to Nayyem, he had just returned from his trip to Washington, where he says he felt a sense of déja vu walking from floor to floor of the State Department. He was surprised to see that most decisions were made in the White House now. “It reminded me of the vertical rule of the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine,” he said, and that felt ominous.

“I believe America will see many more consequences of Paul Manafort’s contamination: what he has first exercised in Russia and Ukraine and now planted in the USA. Americans should be careful— vertical power is quickly built, but it is hard to destroy.”

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Nayyem took this Daily Beast reporter to Manafort’s former office. It occupied the entire floor on the corner of Sofiyevskaya Avenue near Maidan Square—the location could not be more central.

* * *

Last summer NABU, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, released copies of 19 pages from the ledger that showed 22 entries that appeared to be payments related to Paul Manafort for a total of $12.7 million. NABU pointed out that there was no proof that Manafort had actually received any of that money, since he had not signed any paperwork.

NABU, it also should be noted, was created at the demand of Western donors giving billions of dollars to Ukraine. As an official investigative agency, it was tasked to look into the corruption of high-level Ukrainian officials. Last year, The New York Times asked NABU if it had any Manafort-related paperwork. NABU confirmed that it possessed papers with Manafort’s name on them, and Yanukovych’s “Black Ledger” quickly blew up into a scandal that eventually led to Manafort’s resignation from Trump’s campaign.

But that was not the end of the investigation here. As Nayyem says he told the FBI investigators, the “Black Ledger” is “the source of all payments for Yanukovych’s team, including Manafort,” and exposes what was in fact “a complicated money laundry” according to Ukraine's laws, since there were alleged efforts to disguise its origins.

The trail to pursue is money sent to Manafort through Central Asia via offshore companies, says Nayyem. “The FBI has to keep checking all transfers to Manafort’s firm’s accounts,” he told The Daily Beast, and presumably told the Feds as well.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian legislators continue to look at records.

In March this year, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko published an investigative report that alleged the former American consultant laundered money through Kyrgyzstan. In the report, Leshchenko released an invoice on the letterhead of one of Manafort’s businesses, Davis Manafort Inc. of Alexandria, Virginia, in which this “business development and public affairs consulting service” allegedly sold 501 computers valued at $750,000 to Neocom Systems, a company in the sleepy Caribbean port of Belize City.

As reported in the Times, the name of Neocom Systems had surfaced in a corruption probe looking into money laundering and stock fraud in 2012, when the Kyrgyzstan Central Bank listed it as a shell company used for payments by AsiaUniversalBank, “a lender seized by Kyrgyzstan’s Central Bank amid money-laundering allegations.”

The published invoice on what appears to be Davis Manafort’s letterhead is initialed PM on the line assigned to “Director Paul Manafort.” And the $750,000 sum appears to correspond to one of the entries on the $12.7 million list in the “Black Ledger.”

When the news broke, Manafort told the Associated Press the “computer sales contract is a fraud.”

“The signature is not mine, and I didn’t sell computers,” he said in a statement. “What is clear, however, is individuals with political motivations are taking disparate pieces of information and distorting their significance through a campaign of smear and innuendo.”

The Ukrainian investigators regard such denials as one reason they want to work even more closely with the U.S. authorities. “The FBI should by all means investigate Mr. Manafort,” Leshchenko told The Daily Beast. A serious probe by American law enforcement, he suggested, would help people in the United States without relying on Ukrainian claims.

“American investigators were not interested in our messages while this American political operative was living in our country for a decade, making millions,” Nayyem told The Daily Beast: “If only American law-enforcement agencies investigated Manafort’s dubious business in Ukraine back then, the outcome of the [U.S.] presidential elections might have been different, but ambassadors changed, CIA and FBI officials came and left, and nobody wanted to listen to us.”

Serhei Gorbatyuk, the head of the department of special investigations at the office of Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, says his office is always ready to cooperate in the investigation of Manafort, and has at least one inquiry well underway, but its requests for help from the FBI, sent several times since 2015, have gone unanswered.  

* * *

Manafort had an impressive CV when he came to make money in the post-Soviet states in the early 2000s. Having built his reputation as a political operative working with the Republican Party since the 1970s, he had amassed his fortune helping to empower dictatorial regimes in Zaire and the Philippines before coming to work in Moscow and Kiev. Last year, after the revelations of the Ukraine payments, he issued a statement saying he is a “campaign professional” who has worked for many political clients. Among them are Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos, and Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi.

Victor Yanukovych, a politician from eastern Ukraine with a criminal record, and Paul Manafort, this experienced consultant for authoritarian regimes, met at a summer cottage in Moscow in 2005, Nayyem told The Daily Beast.

The meeting was arranged by a Ukrainian billionaire after Manafort was recommended by a Russian one. Nayyem says the investigations he worked on showed oligarchs supporting Yanukovych’s Party of Regions “paid Manafort, their Black Spin Doctor, on non-official contracts; Manafort consulted Ukraine on foreign policy, while his lobbying company, Stone and Kelly, were Yanukovych’s lobby in the U.S.; he brought sociologists, specialists, pollsters.”

The Daily Beast spoke with some of Manafort’s former colleagues, both in Ukraine and Russia, who developed political strategies for Ukraine President Victor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions during the period from 2005 to 2013; as well as with Opposition Bloc members who met with Manafort in 2014 and 2015.

Sergei Markov, an adviser for the Kremlin’s administration and a member of Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party, worked with Manafort on several elections beginning in 2006.  Markov insisted that Manafort’s job was to tie Yanukovych’s image to the Americans, whatever Yanukovych’s real inclinations might have been.

“Manafort thoroughly studied the electorate before the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2010, and turned Yanukovych into a pro-Western, pro-American guy, just by being there, by showing his face,” Markov remembered. “Yanukovych was also eager to be a nice guy for Washington, and agreed with Manafort’s idea to make the promise of European integration the key point of his campaign—later that very game with the pro-EU course was what destroyed Yanukovych.”

Putin was adamantly opposed to the EU ploy by Yanukovych, pressuring him to rescind that initiative, which in turn sparked the protests in late 2013 that became the Maidan Revolution and forced him out of office.

Markov said corruption in Yanukovych’s party was commonplace and Markov’s appraisal of the situation cynical: “Nobody in Ukraine was ever paid with ‘white’ or ‘clean’ cash, it was always ‘black,’ so the population would not get upset; and Manafort, after so many years, simply coped, and accepted the mechanisms of payments as the reality,” Markov suggested, before adding with emotion, “Manafort’s and our team competed.… It is a shame he was paid $12 million. We were supposed to receive that money; it was our money he got.”

Most of Manafort’s Ukrainian partners in the country’s pro-Russian political wing say Manafort was not really Moscow’s man.

Kost Bondarenko, a senior political analyst and sociologist, worked with Manafort for almost a decade. The two met in Kiev in 2005, the year when Yanukovych’s Party of Regions signed a collaboration agreement with Putin’s United Russia.

“He said he had a contract with Party of Regions,” Bondarenko recalled, and Bondarenko went to see Manafort at his office on Sofiyevskaya Avenue.  “I met at his office by Maidan. We spoke for an hour about the political situation in Ukraine. He tried to model the future outcome, asked me questions about how the situation would develop.”

Manafort was particularly interested in whether Bondarenko thought the government that had risen out of the so-called Orange Revolution the year before was solid. (Putin had seen that uprising as a Western plot, and the man who emerged as president, Viktor Yushchenko, was badly disfigured after mysteriously ingesting dioxin, the kind of exotic poison favored by those who attack Putin’s enemies.) Manafort wanted to know if Bondarenko thought the alliance between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko was solid.

In the following year, with Manafort on board, the Party of Regions won parliamentary elections. Both the minister of internal affairs, Yuriy Lutsenko, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, accused Yanukovych of financial fraud during his presidential campaign in 2010. Later, both of them ended up in jail.

Bondarenko told The Daily Beast, “Paul rarely expressed his own political views; he always spoke with me through his interpreter, Konstantin Kilimnik.”

At present, Kilimnik, sometimes known as “Manafort’s man in Kiev,” splits his time between Moscow and Kiev. The former Manafort associate refused to give an interview, but told The Daily Beast that reports about him, including one in Politico that he had been connected with Russian special services, were “false.”

“Let the story they made up about me help Politico authors and their country in the future,” Kilimnik wrote The Daily Beast in a bitter and ironic text message.

Bondarenko’s meetings with Manafort continued for many years. “In 2009, I frequently attended Party of Regions meetings, where Manafort told us that to win we had to work both with Russia and Europe, but that we should not contradict Moscow. His advice turned Yanukovych from a regional into an all-Ukraine politician.”

Bondarenko remembered that the meetings he had with Manafort in Kiev were in the autumn of 2014, after the Maidan revolution and a year later, in 2015. “Kilimnik called me and invited to come to the lobby bar of the Hyatt, where Manafort always stayed,” Bondarenko recalled.

“Manafort asked us whether we had a fresh database, sociology and data for micro-targeting,” said Bondarenko. He knew Manafort as a fast network builder. “When I heard him ask us about micro-targeting, I saw that he was well-informed about the new technologies.” The technique studies the needs and preferences of all social layers, depending on their activities online—their searches on Google, likes on social networks, and such. Various companies, most famously Cambridge Analytica, which worked on the Brexit and Trump campaigns, have made these techniques famous, or infamous.

Based on what Bondarenko saw Manafort do in Ukraine, he says he is convinced Manafort ran what Bondarenko calls “parallel networks” to boost the Trump campaign.

“Trump won because of Manafort,” says Bondarenko. “In Ukraine he created so-called ‘volunteer’ groups, which clearly received compensation but who could gather a protest, if needed, or go around and spread a message about a competitor or fliers.” Bondarenko said this was done by “working with the same kind of mobile groups of hundreds of people in every state. You look at them and think they are just a group of fans, but they were the actual campaigners.”   

Analyzing Manafort’s legacy, several leading Ukrainian IT experts insist that Manafort’s campaigns benefited from Russian “bots” used to promote Yanukovych’s policies on the web. Boris Khodorkovsky, an Odessa-based IT specialist, has made a close study of this methodology. He said it was taking place at the same time Manafort was advising the party, but he did not know if Manafort was aware of the practice or if he was promoting it.  

“Back in 2013, the youth wing of [Putin’s] United Russia party, Molodaya Gvardia, created an effective machine capable of automatically raining spam all over social networks,” Khodorkovsky told The Daily Beast. “Then the Kremlin employed the internet trolls to keep Ukraine under control and later as a workforce in the hybrid war against Ukraine.”

According to Khodorkovsky, “Yanukovych used the instruments provided by Russian masterminds when he tried to withstand the first symptoms of the Revolution of Dignity,” the Maidan uprising.

One of the first striking examples was a clone website of Ukrainska Pravda created in March 2013 by a Russian web-development company named Rossiyskiy Project, Khodorkovsky recalls. “The clone of the newspaper looked very similar to the original Ukrainian media but it posted fake news,” Khodorkovsky says.

One such fake news item said that over 80 percent of Ukrainians supported federalization, meaning much greater autonomy for what became the breakaway Russian-speaking parts of the country now engaged in a war that has cost 10,000 lives over three years.  

Roman Kulchunskyj, another Ukrainian expert on bots and trolls in Ukraine, also blamed Manafort for using his political and sociological skills in order to split Ukrainian society. Manafort pushed hard to build on the resentments of Russian speakers and concerns that Ukraine would be drawn into NATO, leading to a conflict with Moscow.

“Before him, these themes were not as important but he managed to start the fire of the conflict in Ukrainian society and mobilize Yanukovych’s electorate,” Kulchunskyi said. “The Party of Regions created video clips and billboards—a party member told me on the record that this policy was going to emphasize the issue, plant the virus of the issue on people’s minds.”

Nayyem finds it curious that Manafort took the job with Trump knowing, as he must, how many skeletons are in his Ukrainian closet. “He must have been confident that nobody here was going to investigate him,” Nayyem suggested. “For Manafort, Ukraine was a gold mine, so even in his worst nightmares he could not imagine a transparent instrument like our anti-corruption committee, NABU, that questions his payments today. What happened to Manafort is a big lesson for political operatives who work with dictatorial regimes.” Or who play a part in creating them.