WASHINGTON — One of two charges against Gregory B. Craig, a former Obama White House official accused of lying to the Justice Department about his work at a prominent law firm on behalf of Ukraine’s government, was dismissed on Tuesday, days before his criminal trial was set to begin.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the United States District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the government could not prosecute Mr. Craig for making false statements under a foreign lobbying law because the language of the statute was too ambiguous.
But she upheld a second charge under a broader statute that makes it illegal to lie to federal authorities. She rejected arguments by defense lawyers that Mr. Craig could not be held criminally liable for omitting facts in his discussions with the Justice Department, saying “he was obliged to be both truthful and complete.”
Mr. Craig, 74, who served as White House counsel in the first year of the Obama administration, is accused of misleading Justice officials about his work in 2012 for the Ukrainian government, which earned his former law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, more than $4.6 million. His trial is scheduled to begin Monday.
The indictment accuses Mr. Craig of repeatedly lying in response to questions about whether he was required to register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, commonly known as FARA. The law requires anyone who tries to influence American officials or the public on behalf of a foreign government or principal to disclose their activities to the department.
The outcome of his trial will be viewed as at least a partial judgment on the Justice Department’s recent efforts to step up criminal enforcement of the once-obscure — and still widely misunderstood — FARA law. Mr. Craig is also the most prominent Democrat to be charged in a case stemming from the two-year inquiry by the former special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In December 2012, Justice Department officials contacted Mr. Craig about his law firm’s report on the prosecution and jailing of a political rival to Viktor F. Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine. Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman who is now serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence for crimes that include hiding his income from work for Ukraine, steered the work to Mr. Craig.
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Craig did not want to register as a foreign agent because doing so could rule out future federal appointments, so he deceived authorities about his efforts to coordinate with Mr. Manafort and others on a media strategy to publicize his law firm’s report. Mr. Yanukovych was hoping that the report would deflect criticism of his harsh treatment of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine and a political rival.
Judge Jackson found that while it is illegal to make a false statement in a FARA registration, supplementary document or “any other document” submitted under the act, it is unclear whether that language covered Mr. Craig, who never registered as a foreign agent.
But she upheld a false statements charge filed under a more general statute, writing that Mr. Craig was accused of concealing facts that were at the very heart of the federal inquiry into whether he was acting as a foreign agent.