It might feel like a lifetime ago. You might have missed it, with all of the other major breaks in the far-flung investigations into Trumpworld. But last week, Paul Manafort’s former son-in-law and business partner, Jeffrey Yohai, reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in Los Angeles. And that has the potential to significantly increase Manafort’s legal risk.
Yohai pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to real estate transactions and misrepresenting his income and assets to obtain an American Express “Black Card.” Yohai has agreed to cooperate with, and provide information to, federal and state authorities placing yet another Manafort insider in the government’s back pocket. In order to understand how Yohai might impact the government’s ability to build a case against Manafort, it’s helpful to review the known business dealings involving Manafort and Yohai.
Starting as early as 2014 and continuing through 2016, the Manafort family financed Yohai’s real estate development projects in Los Angeles. In an apparent attempt to take advantage of soaring demand for luxury properties, Yohai purchased vacant land and older homes in L.A.’s most exclusive neighborhoods with the hope of building modern houses that would fetch tens of millions of dollars.
Examination of property records and court filings show that Yohai struggled to move any of the four Los Angeles projects to completion or sale. As late as March 30, 2016 (the day after the Trump campaign named Paul Manafort Campaign Convention Manager), Manafort transferred $2.7 million to an entity controlled by Yohai to finance an acquisition of an $8.5 million home in the ritzy Bel-Air neighborhood.
Manafort was swiftly pushed out of the Trump campaign in August 2016 after The New York Times published its “Black Ledger” story connecting Manafort to illicit payments in Ukraine. At roughly the same time, lenders filed notices of default against the four LLCs connected to Yohai’s L.A. development projects. In December, Manafort, his wife and daughter filed documents with the county clerk in Los Angeles asserting that their investments in these LLCs were secured loans—a status that would give the Manaforts’ interests priority over other lenders and investors. The next day, the same LLCs filed for bankruptcy protection. In bankruptcy court, the U.S. Trustee tasked with administering the proceeding has argued that the investments were not secured loans but equity investments without any priority.
Manafort appears to have played an integral role in the projects. Manafort, his wife and daughter were the primary investors in three of the four developments. The actor Dustin Hoffman and his son invested $3 million in the fourth. Manafort and Yohai are 50-50 partners in Baylor Holding, LLC, which was the ultimate majority owner of all four L.A. properties.
Hacked text messages show that Manafort and Yohai worked closely together long before the financial trouble started. “You realize dad and jeff are business partners and there[’]s no sneaking $1 million past the other one,” Jessica Manafort wrote to her sister, Andrea Manafort Shand. In another message, Jessica wrote, Manafort “flew out to california and helped Jeff completely reorganized and set up his business.”
A key question is whether Yohai dragged Manafort into financial trouble or the scrutiny of Manafort’s finances independently made it difficult for Manafort to continue financing the L.A. projects. Yohai already appeared to be financially overextended in 2016. In the same year, a fashion photographer accused Yohai in a lawsuit of misappropriating $3 million and running a Ponzi scheme, he attempted to take out a mortgage against a property owned by his sister-in-law and mother-in-law, and Andrea wrote to her sister that Yohai “forged my fucking name... Trying to take out a loan on Baxter,” referring to Andrea’s Manhattan condo.
However, the timing of the defaults on the L.A. projects and Manafort’s $16 million East Coast borrowing spree coincides with increased media attention of Manafort’s finances. It stands to reason that questions about the provenance of Manafort’s wealth would limit his ability to continue to finance investments. The special counsel’s indictments of Manafort allege that he was in the habit of buying real estate with laundered funds wired directly from secret offshore bank accounts. It’s possible that Manafort used similar strategies with respect to the L.A. properties and put an end to such transfers as soon as the “Black Ledger” story was in national headlines.
Manafort is the subject of parallel criminal prosecutions in Washington, D.C., and the Eastern District of Virginia. Robert Mueller’s prosecutors appear to be building a strong case focused on money laundering, bank fraud and FARA violations. Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates is already cooperating with authorities. So what does news that Jeff Yohai is pleading guilty and cooperating mean for Manafort and the Russia investigation, generally?
While we don’t have an inside direct line to the man in question—Yohai reached out to 377UNION proposing an interview in November 2017, but subsequently ceased communication and the interview did not move forward—we can say with confidence that Yohai worked closely with Manafort on the L.A. development projects for about three years.
Yohai likely knows details about the money flows and bank loans that were taken out over this time period. However, it appears that he was not involved in Manafort’s international business dealings. While Rick Gates was involved in the origination of the funds in Ukraine, wire transfers from Cyprus and failure to disclosure international bank accounts, Yohai primarily received funds from Manafort for use in real estate development.
The current indictments do not allege criminal violations with respect to the L.A. development projects, but it’s possible that Yohai’s plea deal will provide context to the existing investigation and may even eventually trigger new criminal charges against Manafort.
377UNION is a website devoted to investigating Paul Manafort’s financial activity through documents in the public record.