By Daniel Flatley, Greg Farrell, and Andrew Harris
Paul Manafort asked a Washington federal judge to move his September trial on money-laundering and illegal lobbying charges to Roanoke, Virginia, arguing that the pool of potential Washington jurors would be biased against him.
Recent news coverage of his conviction on bank- and tax- fraud charges in Alexandria, Virginia, and his time working for the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump make it impossible to get a fair trial in the nation’s capital, his attorneys said in a Wednesday court filing.
“Nowhere in the country is the bias against Mr. Manafort more apparent than here in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area,” the attorneys said. They cited heavy news coverage of their client’s conviction on Aug. 21 at a federal courthouse in nearby Alexandria, and District of Columbia voters’ propensity for supporting Democratic Party candidates.
Manafort has a history of working for Republican Party figures, most recently serving as Trump’s campaign chairman. Manafort is the only target of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to stand trial and be convicted by a jury.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson had given defense lawyers until the end of the day Wednesday to file their change of venue request but told attorney Richard Westling that it would be hard to find a place in the country where news of Manafort’s legal entanglements hasn’t been heard.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked Westling at a Tuesday hearing.
“I don’t know that I have the answer to that yet,” Westling responded. “It may be that there is no place.”
Jackson said the “overwhelming majority” of publicity for Manafort’s first trial was national, not local and assured the attorney that, “This jurisdiction has had very high-profile cases before.”
Acknowledging his bid was a long shot, Westling said it was important for the motion to be made in the event of an appeal.
“The nation’s attention remains fixed on Mr. Manafort,” the defense team said in the filing. Manafort, they said, “has become an unwilling player in the larger drama between Mr. Mueller and President Trump.”
Roanoke is 230 miles (370 kilometers) southwest of Washington, and politically a world away, according to the defense. While Washington’s metro area is the sixth biggest TV market in the U.S., Roanoke ranks No. 70, according to Nielsen data.
“This may be the rare case where a juror’s predisposition may directly tie to their vote in the last presidential election,” Manafort’s lawyers said, adding “it’s not a stretch” to assume that DC voters who backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election “would be predisposed against Mr. Manafort, or that voters who supported President Trump would be less inclined toward the Special Counsel.”
Almost 91 out of every 100 Washington voters cast their ballots for Clinton, according to Manafort’s team, while fewer than 5 percent voted for Trump. Roanoke is more balanced, they said.
Jackson said she would close jury selection, which could take as long as two days, to the public because of the size of the courtroom and the “awkward and unpleasant” process of having attorneys and jurors come up to the bench for individual questioning.
She also said she would remove a question about whether jurors voted in the 2016 election from the jury questionnaire.
Manafort’s Alexandria jury deadlocked in 10 of 18 counts, prompting U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III to declare a mistrial on those unresolved allegations. Prosecutors have until the end of the day Wednesday to decide whether they want them retried.
Manafort had also sought to have the Alexandria trial moved to Roanoke. Ellis denied that request.
The case is U.S. v. Manafort, 17-cr-201, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).