Greg Craig, a former partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who had served as President Barack Obama’s first White House counsel, will plead not guilty to charges he lied to the Justice Department to avoid registering as a foreign agent in connection with his work for Ukraine, his defense lawyer told a judge Friday.
Craig’s initial court appearance, before Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson in Washington, came a year after he retired amid scrutiny connected to a report he prepared in 2012 for the Russia-aligned Ukrainian government on the prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and political rival of the country’s president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych.
A defense lawyer for Craig, William Murphy of Zuckerman Spaeder, entered the plea on Craig’s behalf.
Craig and his lawyers have mounted an aggressive public relations campaign, attempting to get in front of prosecutors to portray the case as government overreach. It was Craig’s defense team—through a PR team at TSD Communications Inc.—that announced the expected charges, and Craig signed up for Twitter on Thursday to post a video of himself reading a statement that defiantly challenged the government’s case.
“This prosecution is unprecedented and unjustified. I am confident that both the judge and the jury will agree with me,” Craig said in the video, posted to YouTube.
On Thursday, prosecutors charged Craig, 74, with making false and misleading statements to the Justice Department between 2013 and 2014 as it inquired about whether he needed to disclose his Ukraine work under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, an 80-year-old law requiring lobbyists for foreign governments and other overseas interests to disclose their political activities in the United States.
Craig had wanted to avoid registering under FARA “at least in part because he believed doing so could prevent him or others at the law firm from taking positions in the federal government in the future,” according to the indictment.
But his reluctance to register was also rooted in considerations for the report itself, prosecutors said. A FARA registration would have required Skadden to reveal the full extent of its Ukraine work, including a consultation on a second trial of Tymoshenko, and disclose that the firm received more than $4 million to prepare the report.
Those details, prosecutors said, would have undermined the credibility of the report and Craig’s purported independence in preparing it.
An Ivy League-educated luminary in Democratic circles, Craig has steadfastly professed his innocence, even as his firm agreed to pay $4.6 million—representing the amount it received from Ukraine—to resolve claims that it violated the foreign-lobbying disclosure law.
“This indictment accuses Mr. Craig of misleading the FARA Unit of the Department of Justice in order to avoid registration,” Craig’s defense attorneys, William Taylor and William Murphy, said in a statement Thursday. “It is itself unfair and misleading. It ignores uncontroverted evidence to the contrary. Mr. Craig had no interest in misleading the FARA Unit because he had not done anything that required his registration. That is what this trial will be all about.”
As part of the settlement, Skadden registered retroactively as a foreign agent and, in the process, revealed that the firm understood Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk to be bankrolling the Tymoshenko report.
Announcing the settlement, the Justice Department said Skadden had, “in reliance on the lead partner,” made false and misleading statements concerning the firm’s role in releasing the report to media outlets.
Craig insisted on including language in Skadden’s contract with Ukraine specifying that the firm would not engage in political activities that would trigger the need to register under FARA. But the Justice Department said his work nonetheless veered into political territory as he provided copies of the Tymoshenko report to U.S. media outlets and spoke with reporters.
It was in response to inquiries from Justice Department, prosecutors said, that Craig misled authorities about his role in the media strategy around the Tymoshenko report.
Craig’s defense lawyers have said he “repeatedly refused” to participate in Ukraine’s media and lobbying campaign. His defense team has also said Craig spoke to The New York Times “not at the direction or on behalf of Ukraine but to make certain that the Times would accurately summarize the report’s criticisms of the Tymoshenko trial and not rely on misinformation from Ukraine and its representatives.”
“He did not lie to his former firm or the government about these conversations. Furthermore, he was told by the FARA unit on January 16, 2014 that he was not required to register under the statute,” Craig’s defense lawyers said.