Yes, the Mueller investigation is costly. But the millions seized from Manafort have it on track to break even
After almost two years, Mueller's Russia investigation status can be confusing. Here's an overview of the central question, and what we know. USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – Some time soon, federal authorities will begin selling off what's left of Paul Manafort's life, a small fortune amassed through a decade of illicit lobbying work. When they do, the investigation into Russian election interference stands to breach an unusual milestone: bringing in more money than it has cost.
But first, lawyers working for special counsel Robert Mueller must reach a deal with another set of opponents, including the Trump Tower condo board.
A handful of banks and the Trump Tower Residential Condominium Board have lined up to argue that they're entitled to parts of the properties and investment accounts valued at about $26.7 million that the former Trump campaign chairman has been forced to give up as part of plea agreement with Mueller's team. Included in the package of New York real estate is a $7.3 million compound in the Hamptons and a $3.8 million apartment in Manhattan's Trump Tower.
Many of the claims could be resolved as early as this week, according to court documents.
When they are, the investigation Trump has dismissed as a witch hunt and a waste of money will more or less have paid for itself. Mueller's probe has posted costs of about $25 million so far. Exactly how much the government stands to collect will turn on how much of his property must be turned over to banks and others, and to New York's fluctuating real estate market.
In addition to Manafort's fortune, the government stands to collect about $1.9 million from other people charged as a result of Mueller's investigation.
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw complex organized crime cases, said the leftover money, while substantial, represents "icing on the cake for the government whose overriding priority is always a conviction."
"Rarely is there money sufficient to make a big recovery," said Cotter, who is not a party to the Manafort case. "It's only when all the fighting is over involving the banks, family and every other creditor do your really know what the leftover assets are really worth."
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Among those picking at the multi-million-dollar leftovers:
• Citizens Bank in New York has reached a deal with federal prosecutors for the possible recovery of up to $3.2 million in loans on a Soho apartment owned by Manafort, pending its sale by the government.
At Manafort's August trial on financial fraud charges, prosecutors offered evidence that he had falsified the loan application, including inflating his income by $1.5 million. A mortgage loan assistant at Citizens later testified that even as Manafort presented the application for the property listed as a second home, she found the same apartment listed for rent during an online search. (Manafort stood to obtain a better loan rate by classifying the property as a second home.)
• Under a separate agreement with the government, a property management firm linked to the same Soho property stands to collect more than $2,500 in back condo fees, dating to last fall.
• The Chicago-based Federal Savings Bank, whose chief executive expedited approval of $16 million in loans for Manafort after he and the former Trump campaign chief discussed a possible role in the Trump administration, is seeking to claw back some of the loan's proceeds. Two of Manafort's New York properties, the Hampton compound and a $4.1 million Brooklyn brownstone, were offered as collateral for the loan package, which is now in serious default. The claim is pending.
• The assistant secretary of the Trump Tower condo board asserted an interest in the anticipated sale of unit 43G, which once served as the Manaforts' stylish pied-a-terre in New York. The board, according to court documents, seeks an undisclosed amount in uncollected condo fees related to the property that once established Manafort and his wife as neighbors of the president. Separate property listings for the apartment show condo fees of about $2,000 per month.
"Any sale of a residential unit in the condominium is conditioned on the claimant being paid all common charges due on a residential unit as of the date of conveyance," the board said in a court filing.
In court documents, prosecutors said they were in possible settlement discussions with the board, and that a resolution could be reached as soon as this week.
• In one of the more obscure disputes, a federal judge has given a general contractor until March 8 to support his claim for $585,991.85 related to work on Manafort's Brooklyn brownstone.
Prosecutors have argued that the claim lacks "standing" and should be dismissed.
Manafort was found guilty of fraud and other charges by a federal court in Virginia, and pleaded guilty to related charges in another federal court in Washington. He hasn't been sentenced in either case, but has already agreed to give up a chunk of his fortune that he gained through illicit lobbying work for a pro-Russian faction in Ukraine.
That fortune represent by far the bulk of fines and fees assessed against all targets in the Mueller inquiry so far.
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Michael Cohen, the president's former personal attorney; Richard Gates, former Trump campaign deputy; Michael Flynn, former Trump national security adviser; George Papadopoulos, former campaign foreign policy adviser; and Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch attorney whose firm was linked to Manafort’s work, all have been either assessed fines and fees or face financial penalties related to their convictions in the Russia inquiry and related investigations.
Exactly how the final balance sheet for Mueller's investigation will even out may not be fully known for months. Trump has used the investigation's price tag – albeit an inflated one – to disparage the inquiry as a "witch hunt." He falsely claimed that its costs had topped $40 million.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who handled international drug trafficking and fraud cases, said it would be "unusual" indeed to hope than any investigation as complex as Mueller's could turn a profit.
“In (most) fraud cases, while there may be forfeitures, most of that money first goes towards restitution,” Weinstein said. “In drug trafficking and money laundering cases, where there is no restitution and the government can actually recover the forfeited funds, those are cases where the government can hope to break even.”