WASHINGTON - A federal jury found Gregory Craig not guilty of lying to the Justice Department, acquitting the Democratic former White House counsel on Wednesday of concealing media contacts in 2012 related to his work for the Ukraine government.
Jurors deliberated less than a day before vindicating Craig, 74, a former top legal adviser to Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Craig’s defense urged them to weigh his towering reputation in Washington and decades in government and private practice before passing judgment after a three-week trial.
The acquittal marks a high-profile setback for a Justice Department crackdown on foreign lobbying in the United States, exposing flaws in a difficult prosecution that was handed off between several offices before Craig's April indictment. Before the trial began, a judge dismissed a count against Craig directly involving the registration requirements saying the rules seemed vague as applied to Craig's circumstances.
The verdict is likely to stir debate over whether to clarify or strengthen provisions of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires Americans paid by foreign governments or politicians to influence U.S. policy or opinion to register with the Justice Department.
Craig, 74, was left facing one felony count of making false statements to investigators who were trying to determine whether he and his law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, should have registered under the law. The central issue was Craig's outreach on Dec. 11, 2012, to the New York Times on coverage of the law firm's upcoming report reviewing the jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko, a political rival to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The report was commissioned by the Ukraine government, in a project led by Yanukovych's political adviser, Paul Manafort. A wealthy Ukrainian businessman, Viktor Pinchuk, secretly paid Skadden $4.15 million for work on the report, testimony showed.
The trial opened the window on the machinations of a half-dozen powerful Washington public relations, lobbying, consulting and law firms to rehabilitate Ukraine's battered image in the West.
The charge against Craig turned on whether Craig was a knowing and willful participant in the public relations effort directed by Manafort - former campaign chairman for then-candidate Donald Trump and longtime consultant - and tried to hide that from investigators.
Craig testified that he never lied to investigators and was not part of a public relations effort. He told the jury he had contacted Times journalist David Sanger to try to correct mischaracterizations of the Skadden report being promoted by Ukraine. The mischaracterizations suggested the Skadden report exonerated Ukraine's treatment of Tymoshenko, the defense said.
Prosecutors asserted that Craig did not want to register because disclosure of his work with Ukraine could cast doubt on his and Skadden's independence and impede his and colleagues' ability to quickly return to government service.
Skadden in January reached a settlement with the Justice Department, admitting it should have registered for its work in 2012 and 2013, and agreed to turn over $4.6 million it made for the report in exchange for facing no criminal charges. In its settlement, Skadden agreed that an initial finding by the Justice Department in 2014 that the firm did not need to register came after the agency relied on "false and misleading oral and written statements" made by Craig.
Craig, President Barack Obama's first White House counsel and impeachment counsel for his former Yale Law School classmate, President Bill Clinton, took the stand in his own defense, said he did not lie, never believed he had a role in Ukraine's media plan and played no role in formulating it.
Craig was the first prominent Democrat charged in an investigation spun off from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
The charge carried up to a five-year prison sentence, although federal guidelines could recommend probation for a first-time offender.
Craig began his career as a civil rights worker in Mississippi and tutor in Harlem, before going to law school and joining the Williams & Connolly law firm as a protege of founder Edward Bennett Williams. He was close to the Clintons, worked for the late senator Edward M. Kennedy and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and represented such global figures as Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan. After leaving the Obama administration, he joined Skadden in January 2010 and retired in January 2018.