WASHINGTON — A long-running federal investigation into a former White House counsel in the Obama administration is reaching a critical stage, presenting the Justice Department with a decision about whether to charge a prominent Democrat as part of a more aggressive crackdown on illegal foreign lobbying.
The case involving the lawyer, Gregory B. Craig, was transferred in January from federal prosecutors in New York to those in Washington. The previously undisclosed move was driven by Justice Department officials in Washington, and reflects an eagerness within the department to prosecute violations of lobbying laws after the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, focused on foreign influence in his investigations.
A decision about whether to prosecute Mr. Craig, who was White House counsel for President Barack Obama during his first year in office, is expected in the coming weeks, people familiar with the case said. The investigation centers on whether Mr. Craig should have disclosed work he did in 2012 — while he was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — on behalf of the Russia-aligned government of Viktor F. Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine.
The work was steered to Mr. Craig by Paul Manafort, who was then a political consultant collecting millions of dollars from clients in former Soviet states. Mr. Manafort, who went on to become President Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016, was sentenced this 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 banking, tax and lobbying laws stemming from his work in Ukraine.
The Manafort case, and others developed by Mr. Mueller, marked the first high-profile criminal charges in years under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. The 1938 law requires Americans to disclose detailed information about lobbying and public relations work for foreign governments and politicians.
It had rarely been used in prosecutions, even as prominent Washington lobbyists, consultants, lawyers and former public officials collected ever-larger, often six- and seven-figure paydays from foreign interests looking to burnish their sometimes unsavory reputations in the United States capital.
Mr. Manafort’s case, and the investigations into Mr. Craig and other high-profile consultants who worked with Mr. Manafort, have left Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor scrambling to deal with the heightened scrutiny.
The Justice Department recently signaled that its enforcement efforts were just getting started, indicating that scrutiny of foreign influence in American politics will continue after Mr. Mueller’s investigation, which began with a focus on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
One of the first significant initiatives under the new attorney general, William P. Barr, was the reorganization of the unit that oversees FARA, suggesting that enforcing laws on foreign lobbying will become a priority of his tenure.
The prosecutor brought in to run the unit, Brandon L. Van Grack, worked until recently in the special counsel’s office. The unit falls within the Justice Department’s national security division, which investigated Skadden Arps’s Ukraine work and must approve any charges against Mr. Craig.
Mr. Craig, 74, would be the first Democrat to be charged in a case spinning out of the special counsel’s investigation — a distinction that could be used to rebut accusations leveled by Mr. Trump and his supporters that the investigation is a partisan witch hunt.
An Ivy League-educated lawyer who moved easily between elite law firms and government for more than four decades, Mr. Craig worked on foreign policy and other issues during the administrations of President Bill Clinton and President Obama, and joined Skadden Arps in 2010 to create a division focused on what he called “international troubleshooting.”
His Democratic bona fides and ties to the Obama administration were among the main reasons he was recruited by Mr. Manafort as part of an effort to build support in Washington for Mr. Yanukovych, according to lobbyists who worked on the account. They were told to emphasize to Democratic members of Congress and the media that Mr. Craig was involved in the effort.
For Skadden Arps, the work was lucrative; Mr. Manafort arranged for the firm to be paid more than $5.2 million in 2012 and 2013, primarily from a Ukrainian oligarch. In exchange, a team led by Mr. Craig was to produce a report that Mr. Manafort intended to use to quell Western criticism of the prosecution and jailing by Mr. Yanukovych’s government of one of his rivals, the former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, and to train Ukrainian prosecutors handling matters related to the case.
Mr. Craig and the other Skadden Arps lawyers who worked on the account did not register as foreign agents under FARA, despite inquiries from the Justice Department at the time about whether they should have. The department initially concluded in 2013 that Skadden Arps was obligated to register, but it reversed itself the following year after Mr. Craig made the case that the law did not apply to his work on behalf of Ukraine.
The issue started getting renewed scrutiny from the Justice Department in 2017 as Mr. Mueller’s team traced the flow of overseas cash to fund Mr. Manafort’s lobbying efforts. The special counsel had subpoenaed or requested documents from Skadden Arps and two lobbying firms recruited by Mr. Manafort’s team to help build support for Mr. Yanukovych’s government, and Mr. Mueller’s investigators had interviewed people who worked with all three firms, including Mr. Craig. But last year, Mr. Mueller’s team referred the matters related to the three firms to federal prosecutors in Manhattan for potential prosecution as FARA violations.
According to people familiar with the case, Manhattan prosecutors have retained control of the investigations of the two lobbying firms. They are Mercury Public Affairs, whose lead partner on the account was Vin Weber, a former Republican member of Congress, and the Podesta Group, led by Tony Podesta, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser whose business collapsed in 2017 under the glare of Mr. Mueller’s scrutiny.
The prosecutors have interviewed lobbyists who worked with Mercury and Podesta on the Ukraine account as recently as January, but people familiar with the interviews said the prosecutors provided no clues about their plans.
The investigation of Mr. Craig, on the other hand, was moved in January to Washington, where the government has signaled that it is moving quickly toward a decision about an indictment, people familiar with the case said.
The Justice Department’s national security division announced a settlement with Skadden Arps in January that brought even more attention to Mr. Craig. He left the firm 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.
In exchange for a pledge by the Justice Department not to prosecute Skadden Arps, the firm agreed 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 Ukraine.
The settlement accused Mr. Craig of working with Mr. Manafort to hide the funding from the Ukrainian oligarch for Skadden Arps’s work, and of making “false and misleading” statements to other partners at the firm and the Justice Department about his interactions with a reporter for The New York Times related to the Tymoshenko report. Those representations led the Justice Department’s FARA unit to conclude in January 2014 that Skadden Arps was not required to disclose the work under FARA, according to the settlement.
In announcing the settlement, John C. Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said Skadden Arps’s failure to register under FARA “hid from the public that its report was part of a Ukrainian foreign influence campaign,” depriving Americans of the ability “to consider the identity of the speaker as they evaluate the substance of the speech.”
Neither the settlement nor Mr. Demers named either Mr. Craig or The Times and its reporter, David E. Sanger, but their identities are clear from the context. At issue is whether Mr. Craig proactively contacted Mr. Sanger to provide and promote the report, which could fall under the public relations prong of FARA, or merely responded to inquiries from The Times and other media outlets about Skadden Arps’s analysis.
William W. Taylor III and William J. Murphy, lawyers for Mr. Craig, said their client “did nothing that required him to register in connection with his work on the Tymoshenko report. The Skadden settlement was done without his knowledge, and the assertion that he made intentionally false statements to the FARA unit is entirely untrue.”
Mr. Craig’s allies reject the characterization that he was integrally involved in the public relations strategy surrounding the report. And they say that in his conversation with Mr. Sanger, Mr. Craig was not speaking on behalf of the Ukrainian government, but rather correcting mischaracterizations of the report as exonerating Mr. Yanukovych’s government from accusations that it prosecuted Ms. Tymoshenko for political reasons.
Supporters of Mr. Craig bristled earlier this month when Mr. Demers appeared to again call out both Mr. Craig and Skadden Arps at an American Bar Association conference in New Orleans. The firm “was on the hook” for FARA violations because it “made a series of representations to the Justice Department that were not accurate” based on Mr. Craig’s misleading statements, Mr. Demers said, though he did not identify Mr. Craig by name.
He said at the conference that FARA would no longer be considered “an administrative obligation” by the Justice Department, but rather would now be regarded as “an enforcement priority.”
Mr. Craig’s allies contend that the case against him is inconsistent with the Justice Department’s previous interpretations of FARA.
Statements made by Justice Department leaders have contributed to this view. In the summer of 2017, Adam Hickey, an official in the National Security Division, told lawmakers that FARA was designed to make foreign influence campaigns transparent, “not to discourage that conduct itself.”
His description of FARA focused largely on transparency through voluntary registration and ongoing records keeping. “Although it contains a criminal penalty for certain willful conduct,” Mr. Hickey said, “the statute’s focal point is an administrative reporting regime.”
A different statute, Section 951, was designed to punish and deter criminal behavior, he said.
While the Justice Department would not comment on Mr. Craig’s case, a spokesman said that there is no discrepancy between Mr. Demers’s comments and Mr. Hickey’s testimony.
“The purpose of enforcement is increased transparency” and “lying to the government has always been a crime,” said Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman. “That is not new, nor should it be portrayed as such.”