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Joseph Sabino Mistick: Manafort, Gates in tight spot

| Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Paul Manafort leaves federal district court in Washington, D.C., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, and Manafort's business associate Rick Gates have pleaded not guilty to felony charges of conspiracy against the United States and other counts. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Paul Manafort leaves federal district court in Washington, D.C., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, and Manafort's business associate Rick Gates have pleaded not guilty to felony charges of conspiracy against the United States and other counts. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Rick Gates leaves federal district court in Washington, D.C., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, and Gates, Manafort's business associate, pleaded not guilty to felony charges of conspiracy against the United States and other counts. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Rick Gates leaves federal district court in Washington, D.C., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, and Gates, Manafort's business associate, pleaded not guilty to felony charges of conspiracy against the United States and other counts. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Back in the neighborhood, there was a running joke that if a guy suddenly switched from booze to Pepto-Bismol, it was a sure sign that he was in trouble with a grand jury.

Paul Manafort and Rick Gates must be hitting the antacids lately.

Accustomed to lives of luxury, they now face 12 criminal charges, including conspiracy against the United States, money laundering and failure to report foreign bank accounts. And instead of globe-trotting, they are confined to their homes.

When high-profile public figures get into trouble, former prosecutors, investigators, defense attorneys and law professors hit the cable news shows and take turns explaining the complex legal issues that the defendants are facing.

Little attention is paid to the practical impact on those who are caught in the web.

Sometimes, those lives are upended through their own fault.

But mere association — a bad choice of friends — can also do the job.

When you hear that a guy you have been dealing with for months has been wearing a wire, it is a sure cause of agita, that nagging feeling in your gut that you may have, at least, brushed up against serious trouble.

George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI, had been a foreign policy adviser to candidate Donald Trump.

During the campaign, Papadopoulos dealt with Russian operatives in an attempt to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

And here's the rub.

Papadopoulos was quietly arrested, back in July, but his guilty plea was kept secret until the indictments were announced last week. Papadopoulos is described in court papers as a “proactive cooperator,” which likely means that he has been wearing a wire.

This is sure to keep Manafort and Gates, and others, up at night, staring at the ceiling, trying to reconstruct every conversation they have had with Papadopoulos, word by word. Even words said in jest can be incriminating.

But Manafort and Gates are not the only ones lying awake, because trouble for them can mean trouble for anyone they have pulled into their circle. According to The Associated Press, Manafort is facing up to 80 years in jail and Gates is looking at up to 70 years.

Those kinds of sentences would usually provide plenty of incentive for Manafort and Gates to make their own deals with prosecutors, giving up the names of others. But if that is not enough, more charges can be added later.

And even if they roll the dice, banking on presidential pardons, there are state prosecutors waiting in the wings, who can try them for crimes beyond the reach of presidential power.

It is a tight spot.

This is the same combination of electronic eavesdropping, conspiracy charges and draconian sentences that brought down much of organized crime 25 years ago.

The old guys used to say, “Listen, kid. I can do two years standin' on my head.”

But these days, two is 20. And at a certain age, a 20-year sentence becomes a life sentence.

And that usually gets people talking.

You can bet that antacid sales are up, all over Washington.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).

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