Legal team for Manafort co-defendant Rick Gates quits

Some believe the decision heralds a choice by their client to co-operate with Robert Mueller’s probe

In this Nov. 6, 2017 photo, Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, leaves the federal courthouse in Washington. A lawsuit challenging special counsel Robert Mueller’s authority may soon be transferred to another judge.Mueller and lawyers for Paul Manafort filed a joint notice Friday saying they have no objection to transferring Manafort’s lawsuit to the federal judge overseeing the criminal case against him.   (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Three lawyers for Paul Manafort’s co-defendant, Rick Gates, have told the court they want to quit in the criminal money-laundering conspiracy case, raising the possibility of a defence strategy shift and possible cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The lawyers filed their reasons for leaving under seal. However, Mr Gates has reportedly hired long-time Washington criminal defence attorney Tom Green, whose resume stretches back to the Nixon-era Watergate scandal and who helped negotiate a plea deal for disgraced former US House speaker Dennis Hastert.

The attorneys, Shanlon Wu, Walter Mack and Annemarie McAvoy, sought permission to step down in a two-page filing late Thursday with US district judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington. Their reasons could range from financial or compatibility issues to differences in defence strategy to Mr Gates agreeing to cooperate with Mr Mueller’s team.

In an indictment unsealed on October 27, Mr Gates and Mr Manafort were accused of money laundering and illegal foreign lobbying related to their work on behalf of Ukraine’s former president and his political party. That work occurred years before they went to work on Mr Trump’s election bid. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Mr Manafort was brought into Donald Trump’s campaign by a long-time Trump friend, Tom Barrack, who later employed Mr Gates. Mr Barrack said he met Mr Gates during the campaign and later tapped him to work on the president’s inauguration committee, which Mr Barrack ran, and at his real estate company. Mr Gates was fired following his indictment.

In addition to Mr Hastert, Mr Green represented retired US general Richard Secord in connection with the Reagan era Iran-Contra controversy and former assistant attorney general Robert Mardian in the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal, according to his firm biography. He also successfully defended former Puerto Rico governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, who faced mail-fraud and money-laundering charges.

Mr Green didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment. He hasn’t yet formally appeared in the case. A former senior justice department official, Adam Lurie, called Mr Green a “first-rate white-collar defence lawyer” with a great reputation. Lurie is now a partner in the Washington office of Linklaters.

Mr Gates and Mr Manafort were ordered confined to their homes after their initial court appearance on October 30. Mr Gates’s defence team won some limited pre-trial freedom for their client on January 16. In court that day, Ms Jackson tried to reconcile competing concerns in an effort to schedule court hearings and set a trial date, prompting Mr Mack to ask her for a less rigorous schedule.

“We need the time, and we are the least prepared of anyone here,” Mr Gates’s lawyer told the judge then.