Tuesday July 31, on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, Uzo Asonye delivered the prosecution’s opening statement to a packed room. It was the first day in the trial of Paul Manafort, renowned lobbyist, election consultant and former chairman of President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Mr Manafort’s trial is the first legal action initiated by Robert Mueller, the United States’ Special Counsel investigating Russian interference in the United States’ 2016 elections; but the charges against the president’s one-time henchman has nothing to do with politics or elections. Case 1:18 Cr. 83 (TSE)(S-1) levies 18 counts of tax evasion, bank fraud and conspiracy against Mr Manafort. That is why Mr Asonye, an expert in criminal law, government and administrative law, white collar defence and corporate investigations, was lead prosecutor that morning.
Americans were riveted by the opening day of the Manafort trial. It was the first time the whole country got to see Special Counsel Mueller’s team in action and it came in the midst of increasing partisan brinkmanship over the Special Counsel’s office. President Trump has never concealed his disapproval of Mr. Mueller and the Russia investigation. A week before the Manafort trial began, the president’s supporters in Congress filed a resolution to impeach the man who appointed Mr Mueller, United States’ Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. If Mr Rosenstein is removed from office, the Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation will be on the chopping block, at least that is what President Trump and his supporters want.
That morning, Mr Asonye was the face of the maligned Mueller team. Every move he made, every word he uttered counted for something for everybody. For Mr Manafort’s defence team and the anti-Mueller denizens, anything and everything is fodder for the partisan spin mill and much worse. But, if he was weighed down by the legal burden and political overtone of the trial, Mr Asonye did not show it. His opening statement could not have been more forceful.
“A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him”, he began, “not tax law, not banking law”, he added.
He fleshed out the eighteen charges against Mr. Manafort, ranging from preparing false income tax return and declaring same, through concealing foreign bank and financial accounts, to conspiring to commit bank fraud and committing same, all perpetrated before he became chairman of Mr Trump’s presidential campaign. Mr Manafort made a hefty $60 million working for the presidential campaign and administration of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych. He stashed cash in thirty-plus offshore bank accounts with which he financed a life of luxury – seven homes across the United States, fancy cars and custom-made suits – while cooking false documents to avoid paying taxes.
Mr Asonye’s 26 minutes long opening statement painted Mr Manafort as a man with zero scruples when it comes to financial law, it gave a damning overview of the even more damning details that unfolded in next eight days of the trial. Mr Manafort loves the good life, he spends $15,000 on one jacket, $444,000 in one shopping spree at a menswear store, $450,000 on landscaping, $120,000 part-payment on Mercedes-Benz and on and on. He paid $1.9 million for his daughter’s house and a whole lot more on apartments and houses in Virginia and New York for him and his wife.
U.S. President, Donald Trump
But the presiding judge, United States District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who has a reputation for being a stickler for evidence, did not give Mr Asonye a free ride, he interrupted the prosecutor twice in the first minute of his statement.
“It isn’t a crime to be profligate in your spending,” Judge Ellis said at one point. He went on to say what literarily amounts to a scolding, telling the prosecutor not to make broad statements. The judge’s reprimands only got worse over the next few days.
Mr Asonye is no push-over. In his relatively short career at the bar, he has developed a ‘no-holds-barred’ reputation that one reporter described as ‘scorched earth’.
Someone wrote about him on Reddit: “When you walk into the court room and see him as the prosecutor you know you’re fucked.”
This trial was billed as a documents-heavy proceeding long before it started. Mr Asonye and his team came into the courtroom with ten boxes of documents which certainly served well as a prop to the prosecutor’s statement that morning.
His portrait of Mr Manafort’s alleged criminal schemes was graphic even in that first day of the trial. To pay for his top-of-the-line suits, vehicles and homes, Mr Manafort adopted a classic tax avoidance move, he had money wired from accounts in Cyprus and other tax havens where the long hands of the American Internal Revenue Service (IRS) cannot reach. Nothing blurs the nosy taxman’s path like an overseas account. Mr Asonye said Mr Manafort also instructed his accountants and bookkeepers to embellish the lie, they were told to avoid any mention of cash stashed in overseas bank accounts. The prosecutor described this move in words many Nigerians are familiar with:
“Garbage in, garbage out,” Mr Asonye said.
Paul Manafort [Photo Credit: The Hill]
But there are other words at the trial that should be familiar to Nigerians, two names in fact and they are not Uzodinma Asonye. They are the names of the star of the trial – Paul Manafort. There is a Nigerian angle to the unfolding trial which Mr Asonye cannot mention even if he knows it.
Long before he met Viktor Yanukovych, Mr Manafort was, so to say, buddies with Nigeria’s General Ibrahim Babangida during his days as military president. The Torturer’s Lobby, a report published by the Center for Public Integrity in 1992 gave an account of American lobbyists who worked for unsavoury governments in the immediate post-Cold War era. Countries with struggling democracies or outright authoritarianism for whom there was no longer an alternative in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) power bloc found themselves needing friends in Washington D.C. The likes of Paul Manafort, so to say, stepped in to offer a helping hand.
In 1991, the firm, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, which self-described as a public affairs company, got one million dollars from the government of Ibrahim Babangida. The long-drawn political transition to civilian rule programme that ended in the June 12 quagmire started back then. The government spent another two and a half million dollars on lobbyists within the next two years. The money bought them over $8 million in military aid and many sympathisers in the Washington political establishment. It, very likely, also paved the way for the Abachas when they went shopping for conduit to hide looted public funds and certainly showcased the Nigerian political formation as a lucrative run for American lobbyists.
Mr Manafort’s firm also represented the despotic governments of Kenya, Philippines and Jonas Savimbi of UNITA.
Former Military President, Ibrahim Babangida
At thirty-eight, Mr Asonye was in primary school when Mr Manafort was smooching with Babangida. It was during the Babangida regime that the brain drain from Nigeria began in earnest. Who could have predicted back then that a prosecutor of Nigerian descent would face up with the ruling despot’s American enabler in a courtroom just outside Washington D.C.?