What began as a cursory examination of the firm, created to gauge Manafort's level of involvement in the lobbying campaign, has become a criminal investigation into possible violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by the Podesta Group, sources told NBC News.
The Podesta group filed a FARA registration only after reports surfaced in the media about its work for ECMU. Mr. Podesta is the brother to John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, although he is not part of Mr. Mueller's investigation at this time. The two brothers have spent decades successfully leveraged each other's ties to create more power, wealth and influence for themselves and their causes.
John Podesta co-founded the Podesta Group, but hasn't worked with the organization in years and is not under investigation. Podesta told Reuters in December 2013 that his firm was "contacting United States legislators to argue that approving the [anti-Yanukovych] measures would only complicate efforts to improve relations between Ukraine and the West, including the European Union".
Citing three sources with knowledge of the investigation, the Podesta Group became the focus as the special counsel was looking into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
He also oversaw the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU), an effort to boos the country's image in the west through funding a nonprofit.
The FARA forms filed by the Podesta Group show an extensive campaign that included meetings, media opportunities and communications with government officials, think tanks and media outlets. Prison sentences for Manafort and Podesta are unlikely. The Podesta Group has said it is cooperating with the Justice Department.
Manafort left the Trump campaign in August 2016 after the Associated Press revealed his work for the Party of Regions, which reportedly included seeking favorable press coverage in prominent US media outlets.
A spokeswoman said the Podesta Group's original filing was submitted after the advice of legal experts because the ECMU "had certified that it was neither funded nor directed by a foreign government or political party". Mercury made an identical assertion. In response to inquiries, neither firm would describe its vetting process or say if it have altered its FARA compliance practices after being forced to retroactively disclose its work for Yanukovych. Spokespeople for the Podesta Group did not respond to TPM's inquiries.
Last month, the Justice Department also asked Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a large New York-based law firm, for information about its own work on behalf of Yanukovych's government, the Times reported. Skadden has not registered under FARA, contending that none of its attorneys did work that required registering.