Mueller Probe Leaves Many Witnesses in Limbo - NBC Southern California
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Mueller Probe Leaves Many Witnesses in Limbo

The two waves of criminal charges brought by Mueller so far have each left unresolved questions

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    In this June 13, 2013, file photo, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Mueller testified on the oversight of the FBI.

    Over the last nine months, scores of men and women — some powerful and moneyed, others obscure and struggling — have crossed paths with special counsel Robert Mueller's team of prosecutors. So far though, just four have been charged.

    The rest — a colorful cross-section of people, banks and businesses — are in limbo. Some fear they may yet be charged, but most are witnesses who have had their lives upended by a rush of questions about Turkish and Ukrainian lobbying, efforts to obtain hacked material, interactions with Donald Trump's campaign and about every imaginable contact they've had with Russians.

    As Mueller's inquiry has become hyper-focused on whether the president or people around him sought to obstruct justice, these lesser-known figures face a nagging question: Is Mueller done with them or not?

    Sprawling white-collar investigations like Mueller's nearly always involve a panoply of witnesses whose cooperation helps build cases, subjects whose actions are of interest to agents and actual targets in jeopardy of criminal charges. Nine months into Mueller's investigation, it remains unclear exactly how many targets remain in the crosshairs or what will become of the people who have been questioned by the government but given no reassurance of whether their involvement in the case has been concluded.

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    People involved in the case describe bursts of frequent dialogue with Mueller's team, followed by long stretches of silence, creating uncertainty about where they stand.

    Washington criminal defense lawyer Barbara "Biz" Van Gelder, who is not involved in the Mueller investigation, said federal probes, by their secretive and expansive nature, can mean months and even years of scrutiny without any resolution.

    "If there is a bank robbery, the government's position is, 'I can't tell who's an accomplice, who's a co-conspirator — it could be the guard, it could be someone standing in the teller line, it could be a lookout,'" Van Gelder said. "Everyone is put in the subject bucket until they have enough evidence or present enough evidence to get themselves out of the category."

    Among those in the balance: powerful Washington lobbyist Tony Podesta, who resigned from his namesake lobbying firm in the wake of Mueller's scrutiny, and former GOP congressman Vin Weber of Mercury Public Affairs. Both have faced scrutiny — and denied any wrongdoing — related to a Ukrainian-backed Washington influence campaign directed by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate, Rick Gates.

    Dozens of other people or entities have been questioned, served with subpoenas or search warrants and provided information as part of the Manafort investigation.

    Others have also weathered months of scrutiny because of their association with former national security adviser Michael Flynn. They include a Turkish businessman seeking to get a controversial cleric extradited, a former CIA director, a former director at the U.S. Export-Import Bank and several former military and federal law enforcement officials.

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    Now, months after the Manafort indictment and Flynn's guilty plea, this group of people has been left in the position of waiting for resolution.

    Most people involved in the Mueller investigation have declined to speak publicly about their work. A spokeswoman for Podesta and a lawyer for Weber declined comment, as did several involved in the Flynn part of the Mueller probe.

    But a handful of people involved in the case who spoke with The Associated Press say they're not asking the government for clarity. In their minds, no news is good news. And even if defense attorneys asked for formal assurances that their clients won't face charges, there's generally not much anyone can do to force an answer from the government.

    "Generally if they don't want to talk to you, you don't want to talk to them," said one lawyer with a client in the case, who — like others who talked to the AP — spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

    Even witnesses without risk of criminal jeopardy are "nonetheless at the mercy of the government" and its judgment, said another lawyer with a client in the investigation.

    A person who has been interviewed by the government recently described being afraid to open a lawyer's bill, saying, "Even if you are a witness, every basic interview is costing thousands of dollars."

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    The two waves of criminal charges brought by Mueller so far have each left unresolved questions. The first came in October against Manafort and Gates and included a guilty plea from foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. The second involved a guilty plea from Flynn on a charge of lying to the FBI.

    As Manafort and Gates head toward a trial, a lawyer in the case said recently that it's possible Mueller could file additional charges, but it's unclear if they will involve anyone else beyond the two already charged. Both Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing. They are currently under a gag order, barring them from discussing the case publicly.

    In the Flynn case, his plea agreement stemmed from lies he told during an FBI interview about conversations he had with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. The only mention of Turkey — and Flynn's failure to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act — came in the final paragraph of the five-page statement attached to the agreement in a section for "other" false statements.

    People involved in the Flynn case say they believe Mueller has moved on from scrutinizing the lobbying effort. But as with most things regarding the secretive investigation, they couldn't say for certain.

    Associated Press writer Desmond Butler contributed to this report.