WASHINGTON — In an indictment that seized the attention of the capital’s K Street lobbying corridor, Gregory B. Craig, a White House counsel in the Obama administration, was charged on Thursday with lying to the Justice Department and concealing information about work he did in 2012 for the government of Ukraine.
The indictment of Mr. Craig, 74, stemmed from an investigation initiated by the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
The charges represented a continuation — and an expansion — of a new focus on a long-neglected law governing foreign influence operations in the United States, which the Justice Department has begun prioritizing in part because of scrutiny related to Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
Mr. Craig, in a video posted on YouTube on Thursday night, called the charges against him “unprecedented and unjustified,” and expressed confidence “that both the judge and the jury will agree with me.”
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, had been the basis for charges brought against several people who had been investigated by the special counsel. The 1938 law requires Americans to register with the Justice Department when they lobby or do public relations in the United States for foreign politicians, parties or governments.
Before Mr. Craig’s indictment, the recent charges brought in cases initiated by Mr. Mueller had accused people of failing to disclose their lobbying work.
The charges against Mr. Craig, on the other hand, stem from public relations, rather than lobbying. While Mr. Craig was not charged with failing to register under the law, the indictment accuses him of lying to, and withholding information from, the Justice Department officials who oversee FARA in order to avoid registration.
Before the indictment, Mr. Craig’s lawyers asserted that the case against their client was flimsy, pointing out that Mr. Mueller’s team had referred it to federal prosecutors in Manhattan last year for potential prosecution related to foreign lobbying laws, but that they did not bring charges. Instead, the case was moved in January to Washington.
“Mr. Craig had no interest in misleading the FARA Unit because he had not done anything that required his registration,” Mr. Craig’s lawyers, William Taylor and William Murphy, said in a statement on Thursday, referring to the part of the Justice Department that oversees the law. “That is what this trial will be all about.”
By Thursday afternoon, the indictment and its implications were a hot topic for Washington’s lucrative lobbying and communications consulting industry.
The charges will prompt even more diligent review of possible compliance obligations by consultants who represent foreign clients, said Thomas J. Spulak, a partner at the King & Spalding law firm who advises on lobbying compliance.
“It’s pretty significant,” he said. “It’s not just trying to influence the government; it’s trying to influence the American public.” He added, of Mr. Craig’s case, “If they can establish the facts, then I think it’s a pretty serious violation.”
Mr. Craig’s indictment also attracted notice because he is the first person who made his name in Democratic Party politics to be charged in a case linked to the special counsel’s investigation. An Ivy League-educated lawyer, Mr. Craig held prominent positions in the administrations of President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.
The charges “undermine the narrative of President Trump and congressional Republicans that the Mueller probe was a Democratic witch hunt meant to bring down Trump and the G.O.P.,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
The indictment said Mr. Craig “did not want to register as an agent for the government of Ukraine” partly because he believed doing so would make it less likely that he and others at his firm at the time, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, would be appointed to federal government posts. Mr. Obama had put rules in place restricting the work that former lobbyists could do in his administration.
The indictment said Mr. Craig also wanted to hide the identity of the Ukrainian oligarch who paid $4 million to fund the overwhelming majority of the fees received by Skadden Arps for the Ukraine work.
In his YouTube video, Mr. Craig identified the oligarch as Viktor Pinchuk, a steel magnate who has portrayed himself as pro-Western, and who has donated millions to the Clinton Foundation, as well as $150,000 to Mr. Trump’s since-shuttered charitable foundation.
Mr. Pinchuk’s representatives have said that “he had no connection to the project either professionally or personally” and “was not the source of any funds used to pay fees of Skadden in producing the report.”
The work was done on behalf of the government of Viktor F. Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine, and consisted primarily of producing a report on the prosecution and jailing by Mr. Yanukovych’s government of one of his rivals, the former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko. The Skadden Arps team also agreed to train Ukrainian prosecutors handling matters related to the case.
The work was steered to Mr. Craig and his firm by Paul Manafort, who at the time was a political consultant earning tens of millions of dollars for his representation of Mr. Yanukovych. Mr. Manafort intended to use the report to quell Western criticism of Mr. Yanukovych.
Mr. Manafort, who went on to become Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016, was sentenced last month to seven and a half years in prison on charges brought by Mr. Mueller’s team related to obstruction of justice and violations of FARA, as well as banking and tax laws stemming from his work in Ukraine.
Mr. Craig is scheduled to be arraigned on Friday.
In his video statement, Mr. Craig said his team at Skadden Arps “researched the requirements for registration under FARA and agreed that the law firm did not need to register.” He also said that the report the team produced “was critical of important aspects of the trial, which we found to be flawed.”
After the report was released, and Mr. Craig was quoted discussing it in an article in The New York Times, the Justice Department reached out to Skadden Arps to ask why the firm and its lawyers had not registered as foreign agents for the Ukrainian government.
The department initially concluded in 2013 that Skadden Arps was required to register. But it reversed itself the next year after Mr. Craig made the case that the law did not apply to his work on behalf of Ukraine.
After the initial determination, Mr. Craig told the Justice Department that he and Skadden Arps did not proactively reach out to news outlets to disseminate and promote the report. Rather, he claimed he distributed the report only “in response to requests from the media,” according to a letter he sent to the department at the time.
In the indictment, prosecutors presented evidence that Mr. Craig did reach out to The Times and was involved in the media rollout strategy for the report.
A spokeswoman for The Times said, “To date, we have not received a subpoena in the investigation and have not provided information to the government.”
Mr. Craig left Skadden Arps last year as scrutiny of his work with Mr. Manafort escalated and after a former associate of the firm pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his work on the effort.
Skadden Arps reached a settlement in January with the Justice Department that allowed the firm to avoid prosecution in the matter in exchange for an agreement to pay $4.6 million, to retroactively register its Ukraine work under FARA, to beef up its compliance processes and to cooperate with government investigations of the work on behalf of Ukraine.
Taken together, the indictment of Mr. Craig and the settlement with Skadden Arps suggest that the Justice Department is trying to “make an example of this prominent lawyer and law firm so that parties receiving D.O.J. inquiries in the future will take them more seriously,” said Matthew Sanderson, who advises clients on compliance with FARA and other lobbying laws for the firm Caplin & Drysdale.
“In the past, the department would send letters of inquiry to organizations that would receive only a cursory response or be disregarded altogether,” he said. “That, apparently, will no longer be tolerated.”