A federal judge appeared unconvinced Wednesday after attorneys for Paul Manafort claimed the FBI improperly seized evidence from his home and a nearby storage locker.
Mr. Manafort, the former chairman of President Trump’s 2016 campaign, said evidence seized in those searches should be tossed because the FBI acted improperly. That evidence, including financial records and business documents, was used by special counsel Robert Mueller to indict Mr. Manafort as part of his investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the election.
The debate over the storage locker search dominated most of the three-hour hearing. Defense attorneys said the search was improper because the FBI was given access to the locker by an employee of Mr. Manafort’s consulting firm who had a key. That employee, defense counsel said, did not have the authority to permit law enforcement to enter the locker because his only access to the unit was through his connection to Mr. Manafort.
“He is just there to bring things when directed by Mr. Manafort,” said defense attorney Thomas Zehnle, who described him as a low-level employee.
But District Judge Amy Berman Jackson remained skeptical. She continued to pressure Mr. Zehnle to explain why the unnamed employee couldn’t allow the FBI into the locker. She noted that the employee had control because he had a key, had moved files into the locker, and his name was on the unit’s lease.
“Why should I look into the lease and read some limit in it that isn’t apparent in the lease?” she asked.
The evidence seized in the May 2017 storage locker led to Mr. Manafort’s October indictment on charges on money laundering and failing to report as a foreign agent of the Ukraine. He is also facing federal tax fraud, tax evasion and bank fraud charges in Virginia.
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Manafort failed to report income on consulting work he did in the Ukraine to avoid U.S. taxes, spending the extra money on an extravagant personal lifestyle.
Mr. Manafort has denied those claims and pleaded not guilty in the Washington and Virginia cases.
Defense attorneys seeking to have those charges dropped hammered the storage-locker search, claiming it violated Mr. Manafort’s constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizures. They claimed all the evidence seized in the raid should be inadmissible during Mr. Manafort’s upcoming trial in Washington.
“The initial entry is unlawful and the warrant can’t save it because the search was based on the warrant,” Mr. Zehnle said.
Prosecutors with Mr. Mueller’s team said the search was legal. They said the employee had the right to enter and exit the facility and bring others into it because his name was on the lease.
Judge Jackson appeared to agree with the prosecutor’s arguments.
“The lease says on its face he’s the occupant,” the judge said. “He’s named as the occupant, and he has a key.”
Defense counsel also attacked the search warrant used to seize financial documents from his Alexandria home. They argued that the search warrant was overly broad, allowing the FBI to look at every document. But again, Judge Jackson seemed unmoved, drawing the distinction that the warrant was looking for business records and Mr. Manafort ran the company out of his house.
Mr. Meisler pushed back against the defense argument. He said Mr. Manafort did work from his house, therefore bank records and other documents related to his Ukraine work would have been stored there.
Judge Jackson also said the government and Mr. Manafort are “closer than we’ve ever been” to reaching an agreement on bond conditions. The judge said she needed more time to make a decision, but did not say how much longer it would take.
Mr. Manafort and prosecutors have disputed the conditions of his bond, differing on how much property and other collateral he must provide as part of his bail agreement.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at email@example.com.
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