Federal prosecutors in recent weeks have been interviewing witnesses about the flow of foreign money to three powerful law and lobbying firms that Paul Manafort recruited seven years ago to help improve the image of the Russia-aligned president of Ukraine, people familiar with the questioning said.
The previously unreported interviews about the flow of the money are among the latest developments in the investigation of key figures who worked at the three firms — Mercury Public Affairs, the Podesta Group and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Prosecutors have focused on the role of Skadden Arps’s lead partner on the account, the former Obama White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, in arranging financing and media coverage for his firms’ work, the people familiar with the questioning said. And the prosecutors, they said, have also been asking about the extent to which the lead partners on the accounts for Mercury and Podesta — Vin Weber, a former Republican member of Congress, and the Democratic fund-raiser Tony Podesta — were involved in orchestrating their firms’ day-to-day lobbying and public relations on the account.
The case has drawn intense interest in Washington in part because of the prominence of the three main figures, each of whom has played high-profile roles in politics and lobbying. But it has also sent shock waves through the influence industry by underscoring a newly aggressive legal crackdown on lobbyists and lawyers who do lucrative work representing foreign governments without registering as foreign agents.
The focus by prosecutors on precisely how the firms were paid for their work highlights the ripple effects of the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. His team’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election spawned the investigation into unregistered foreign lobbying by the firms, which was referred to federal prosecutors in New York.
In recent weeks, people who worked with the firms on the Ukraine efforts have been summoned to Manhattan for daylong interviews with prosecutors and investigators, according to several people familiar with the questioning who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation. The interviews were run by prosecutors from the office of the United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York, with assistance from the F.B.I. and the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
Prosecutors from the southern district are playing central roles in a number of the investigations that have spun out of the special counsel’s work, including the escalating inquiry into President Trump’s inaugural committee.
Questions have centered on what the firms’ officials knew about who was funding and directing their work, which occurred in 2012 and 2013, whether they intentionally misrepresented the source of the money and, if so, why.