Ukrainian corruption probe uncovers references to Trump’s campaign manager

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Paul Manafort, senior advisor to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, exits following a meeting of Donald Trump's national finance team at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, U.S., June 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RTSGTBH

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And how political unrest in Ukraine has made its way into the race for president of the United States.

Before becoming Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort consulted for Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who fled to Russia in 2014 and later faced charges in the deaths of civilian protesters. Yanukovych’s removal exposed a political system in Kiev rife with corruption.

Today, The New York Times reports of a — quote — “black ledger” that allegedly links Manafort to millions of dollars in secret cash payments.

John Yang has the story.

JOHN YANG: The papers were discovered by Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau.

In some 400 pages of handwritten notes, Paul Manafort’s name appears 22 times over the course of five years, totaling $12.7 million.

The New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, Andrew Kramer, is one of the reporters who wrote the story, and he joins us now from Moscow.

Andrew, thanks for being with us.

Andrew, first of all, tell us exactly what it was that they found. What were these ledgers? Where was the money coming from? What were the payments for?

ANDREW KRAMER, The New York Times: Those are all very good questions.

Thank you.

The ledger is called in Ukraine the black ledger, and it’s a collection of papers, perhaps 400 pages, as you mentioned, with handwritten notes describing payments from the Party of Regions, which is a pro-Russian political party that Paul Manafort worked for before becoming manager of the Republican campaign this year in the United States.

The outlays described in this ledger included legitimate campaign expenses, such as advertising, travel for candidates, and also illegal activities under any definition, such as payments to the electoral commission of Ukraine, members of the electoral commission receiving money from this same fund.

According to the ledger, there is also mention of Paul Manafort. So, at the same time, you have a payment for a campaign consultant, there are outlays to potentially illegal activities like bribing.

Where the money came from, also a very good question. I spoke with a senior member of the Party of Regions who described using the system before he left the party. And he said that the money was, in part, undocumented campaign contributions to the Party of Regions and also money extorted from business owners in Ukraine by the party.

JOHN YANG: Why is this significant? Why is the fact that Manafort’s name is on this ledger at this sum of $12.7 million, why is this significant?

ANDREW KRAMER: Well, I think it’s significant because the Trump campaign has made Russia an issue this year.

Mr. Trump has spoken favorably of President Vladimir Putin. There was a hack of the Democratic National Committee e-mail system, which has been blamed by the U.S. security services on Russia.

And many members of his campaign staff have experience in this part of the world, most notably Mr. Manafort. This is why we spent time to look into Mr. Manafort’s business dealings and political activities in Ukraine over the past decade.

JOHN YANG: And remind us of Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, who was one of Manafort’s clients, as well as the party. Remind us of who he is, what he did and his relationship with Vladimir Putin.

ANDREW KRAMER: Certainly.

Mr. Yanukovych was prime minister and then president of Ukraine with a generally pro-Russian line to his politics, although he did also negotiate with the European Union to join a trade agreement, eventually, instead of choosing that agreement, choosing the alternative trade agreement with Russia, which was the cause of a large popular uprising in Ukraine in 2014 that led to his ouster.

Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia, where he’s still living.

JOHN YANG: And we should point out that Mr. Manafort said — quote — “The suggestion that I accepted cash payments is unfounded, silly and nonsensical.”

He also included in his statement that all of his political payments are all-inclusive. They go for paying for staff, for polling, for research and advertising.

How does that jibe — what he said in his statement, how does that jibe with what the anti-corruption unit found?

ANDREW KRAMER: The anti-corruption found his name mentioned in this ledger, according to a statement from the Anti-Corruption Bureau.

They could not prove that he actually received the money, because they don’t know the signatures beside these line items in the ledger. It’s conceivable that somebody else may have taken this money, for example, and deposited it into a company that sent the money to Mr. Manafort.

This is clearly an under-the-table payment in any case. And from what I understand of his statement, he doesn’t dispute the sum involved or that he was paid for his work in Ukraine, but, rather, the nature of the payment, that it was an under-the-table payment.

JOHN YANG: And your story also talked about some of the other business dealings that Paul Manafort had in Ukraine and their connections with people connected to Yanukovych.

ANDREW KRAMER: That’s right.

Sometimes, it’s said you can do good while doing well. And while he was doing what was said to be a good deed of promoting democracy in Ukraine, he was also doing well.

The — there — several opportunities open for lucrative side deals during his period in Ukraine. We examined one of them in particular involving the purchase of a cable television station in Southern Ukraine, in Odessa, that was orchestrated through a series of offshore shell companies.

These same companies were used by members of the inner circle of the Yanukovych government to launder money obtained through corrupt means from Ukraine. The indication is that Mr. Manafort was doing business with or intended to do business with this venal and corrupt group of people who led that country for about a decade.

JOHN YANG: Andrew Kramer of The New York Times, thanks for joining us to talk about your reporting.

ANDREW KRAMER: Thank you very much.

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