Special counsel Robert Mueller has referred another piece of his investigation to New York federal prosecutors, asking them to take over a collection of cases concerning whether several high-profile American lobbyists and operatives failed to register their work as foreign agents, according to people familiar with the cases.
Mueller's transfer of cases marks an escalation in the special counsel's referrals to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). He previously turned over the case involving Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, according to CNN.
Since the spring, Mueller has referred matters to SDNY involving longtime Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta and his work for his former firm, the Podesta Group, and former Minnesota Republican Rep. Vin Weber and his work for Mercury Public Affairs, the sources said.
One source said that former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, a former partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, is also part of the inquiry.
None of the entities involved have been charged with wrongdoing, and there is no indication the SDNY inquiry will result in criminal charges.
It's not clear whether they are considered one case or separate matters, these people said, though all involve inquiries into whether the men improperly performed work on behalf of groups associated with Ukraine without registering with the Justice Department as foreign agents.
According to federal law, an entity representing a foreign political party or government must file public reports detailing its relationship with the foreign entity.
While Mercury and Skadden have offices in Manhattan, Weber and Craig were based in Washington, D.C. and performed the work in question while based there, so it's not clear why Mueller referred the cases to federal prosecutors in New York. However, SDNY could claim jurisdiction for many reasons, including it being the location where banking transactions associated with the investigation took place.
The special counsel investigation has received pushback from Trump and his allies for what they perceive as Mueller overstepping his role in the investigation, saying his inquiry has extended into matters beyond the scope of Russian meddling and potential collusion with Trump's presidential campaign during the 2016 election cycle. His referral of cases that aren't linked to collusion could be his way of insulating the probe from backlash, people familiar with the investigation told CNN.
A spokesman for the special counsel's office and a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office both declined to comment. Most of the aforementioned parties and their representatives also declined to comment on the case referrals.
"We welcome any inquiry, as we always have, since we acted appropriately at every step of the process, including hiring the best lawyer in Washington we could and following his advice," said Michael McKeon, a partner at Mercury.
The inquiry into all three firms is connected to the special counsel's examination of Trump's former campaign chief Paul Manafort and his associate, Rick Gates. Both men were charged with failing to file as foreign agents while working on behalf of the Party of Regions, a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.
Manafort, who pleaded not guilty and faces trial on the matter in September, and Gates, who pleaded guilty, paid the Mercury and Podesta firms through a nonprofit, European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, for work that was subsequently revealed to have been done on behalf of Ukraine's government, according to court filings.
Mueller had been examining whether Mercury and the Podesta Group properly identified to federal authorities their foreign advocacy for the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, CNN previously reported. The ECFMU is a Brussels-based nonprofit group that federal prosecutors have called a mouthpiece for pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians.