Tony Podesta — brother of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta — and the Podesta Group are now among the subjects of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into whether Russia improperly influenced the 2016 presidential election.
According to NBC News, Mueller, whose team subpoenaed the Podesta Group as well as two other Democrat-aligned public relations and lobbying firms back in August, made Podesta a subject because of the organization's financial links to Paul Manafort and a campaign Manafort ran for the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU).
Podesta's firm was one of several that did work on the campaign, helping to improve Ukraine's former pro-Russian (and pro-Vladimir Putin) leadership's image in the West.
Sources close to Mueller's team tell NBC that their inquiry into the Podesta Group started off as a "fact finding mission," but quickly developed into a full-on investigation, and they are now pursuing a criminal inquiry into whether Podesta and his lobbying firm violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Whether Podesta and his firm are guilty hinges on their role in Manafort's campaign — and who they targeted. Before anyone is allowed to lobby or contact legislators on behalf of any group, they must register with the Justice Department, and file detailed reports on their spending, travel, and activities.
The Podesta Group, NBC says, filed their disclosures with the Justice Department, but only after their work with Manafort came out in the press. According to those forms, the ECMU paid Podesta around $1.1 million to "lobby Congress, the White House National Security Council," and other federal bodies to support Ukraine's embattled pro-Putin minister who was trying to draw the small country into a close relationship with Putin's Russia — a move we now know was orchestrated by Putin's government.
Podesta Group released a statement Monday.
[Podesta Group] is cooperating fully with the Special Counsel’s office and has taken every possible step to provide documentation that confirms timely compliance. In all of our client engagements, the Podesta Group conducts due diligence and consults with appropriate legal experts to ensure compliance with disclosure regulations at all times — and we did so in this case.
Although the inquiry sounds serious, heads of organizations who fail to abide by FARA guidelines don't normally face jail time. If they are guilty of not filing proper disclosures, they are likely to face a fine.