Manafort assistant gave FBI access to storage locker: testimony

ALEXANDRIA, Va., June 29 (Reuters) - A personal assistant to Paul Manafort granted the FBI access to a storage locker, allowing the government to secure evidence that President Donald Trump's former campaign manager is trying to suppress, according to testimony on Friday in a federal court hearing in Virginia.

FBI special agent Jeff Pfeiffer made the disclosure at a hearing to consider whether evidence from the locker and a separate search of Manafort's home, both in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Alexandria, could be used in a Manafort trial set for July.

Manafort's lawyers have sought to suppress the searches as part of a broader attempt to discredit the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing whether Trump's campaign worked with Russia to sway the election. Manafort, who is now in jail, has been charged mainly for financial crimes not related to the campaign.

Pfeiffer testified that the FBI initially learned about the storage locker from reporters for the Associated Press who met with FBI and Justice Department officials in April 2017 to discuss their reporting on Manafort's business activities.

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Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort through the years
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign chair and convention manager Paul Manafort speaks at a press conference at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, U.S., July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as his campaign manager Paul Manafort (C) and daughter Ivanka (R) look on during Trump's walk through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, U.S., July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign chair and convention manager Paul Manafort appears at a press conference at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, U.S., July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort talks to the media from the Trump family box on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Paul Manafort, senior advisor to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, smiles as he talks with other Trump campaign staff after Trump spoke to supporters following the results of the Indiana state primary, at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump's senior campaign adviser Paul Manafort (L) walks into a reception with former Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, at the Republican National Committee Spring Meeting at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood, Florida, April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21: Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort listens to Ivanka Trump speak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21, 2016. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 20: A man with a security credential takes a selfie at the podium as Donald Trump, flanked by campaign manager Paul Manafort and daughter Ivanka, checks the podium early Thursday afternoon in preparation for accepting the GOP nomination to be President at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on Wednesday July 20, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JULY 19: Paul Manafort, advisor to Donald Trump, is seen on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 19, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) Paul Manafort., Convention Manager, Trump Campaign, appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday April 10, 2016. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
NA.R.DoleMicCk1.081596.RG.Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole looks up from podium at balloons and television cameras as convention center manager Paul Manafort, at right, points out preparations for tonight's acceptance speech in San Diego, 08/15/96. (Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater, young Republicans political operatives who have set up lobbying firms. (Photo by Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Lauren Easton, director of media relations at the Associated Press, confirmed that the agency's journalists met with Justice Department officials "in an effort to get information on stories they were reporting, as reporters do." She said they asked the officials about a locker but never identified its location.

Pfeiffer said that Manafort's personal assistant, Alex Trusko, had signed papers leasing the storage unit so had the authority to let the FBI view inside the locker on May 26, 2017 without a search warrant.

Pfeiffer said the FBI did not look at the contents of boxes in the locker until getting a search warrant on May 27, 2017.

Manafort's lawyers have argued that Trusko was not authorized to open the locker for the FBI because Manafort effectively controlled the unit.

Friday's hearing came three days after Judge T.S. Ellis denied Manafort's motion to dismiss the case outright in the U.S. District of the Eastern District of Virginia. The judge rejected Manafort's argument that Mueller lacked authority to prosecute him.

Trump denies any collusion with Russian meddling in the election, and the president has repeatedly called the probe a politically motivated witch hunt.

Ellis adjourned Friday's hearing without ruling on any of the motions but suggested that he was leaning towards rejecting one made by Manafort's lawyers to hold a hearing to look into alleged leaks from the grand jury that indicted Manafort.

Kevin Downing, one of Manafort's attorneys, said he did not believe his client could get a fair trial because the media had "satiated" the public with lies and biased reports about Manafort's alleged wrongdoing. He said the situation may lead Manafort's team to apply for a change of venue.

"I'm not going to have a hearing on the leaks," Ellis said in a testy exchange with Downing, urging him to file a brief to show why one was warranted. "You used the word satiated many times. Prove it. Show it."

The case before Ellis is one of two involving Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiring to launder money, bank and tax fraud and failing to register as a foreign agent for a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party.

The case in Virginia is scheduled to start in July while the other case in Washington begins in September.

Manafort was jailed earlier this month after Mueller filed fresh charges against him over alleged witness tampering while he was under house arrest. He waived his right to attend Friday's hearing and did not appear. (Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Nathan Layne Editing by Mary Milliken, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)

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