By Mark Hosenball and Nathan Layne
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - A personal assistant to Paul Manafort granted the FBI access to a storage locker, allowing the government to secure evidence that President Donald Trump's former campaign manager is trying to suppress, according to testimony on Friday in a federal court hearing in Virginia.
FBI special agent Jeff Pfeiffer made the disclosure at a hearing to consider whether evidence from the locker and a separate search of Manafort's home, both in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Alexandria, could be used in a Manafort trial set for July.
Manafort's lawyers have sought to suppress the searches as part of a broader attempt to discredit the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing whether Trump's campaign worked with Russia to sway the election. Manafort, who is now in jail, has been charged mainly for financial crimes not related to the campaign.
Pfeiffer testified that the FBI initially learned about the storage locker from reporters for the Associated Press who met with FBI and Justice Department officials in April 2017 to discuss their reporting on Manafort's business activities.
Lauren Easton, director of media relations at the Associated Press, confirmed that the agency's journalists met with Justice Department officials "in an effort to get information on stories they were reporting, as reporters do." She said they asked the officials about a locker but never identified its location.
Pfeiffer said that Manafort's personal assistant, Alex Trusko, had signed papers leasing the storage unit so had the authority to let the FBI view inside the locker on May 26, 2017 without a search warrant.
Pfeiffer said the FBI did not look at the contents of boxes in the locker until getting a search warrant on May 27, 2017.
Manafort's lawyers have argued that Trusko was not authorized to open the locker for the FBI because Manafort effectively controlled the unit.
Friday's hearing came three days after Judge T.S. Ellis denied Manafort's motion to dismiss the case outright in the U.S. District of the Eastern District of Virginia. The judge rejected Manafort's argument that Mueller lacked authority to prosecute him.
Trump denies any collusion with Russian meddling in the election, and the president has repeatedly called the probe a politically motivated witch hunt.
Ellis adjourned Friday's hearing without ruling on any of the motions but suggested that he was leaning toward rejecting one made by Manafort's lawyers to hold a hearing to look into alleged leaks from the grand jury that indicted Manafort.
Kevin Downing, one of Manafort's attorneys, said he did not believe his client could get a fair trial because the media had "satiated" the public with lies and biased reports about Manafort's alleged wrongdoing. He said the situation may lead Manafort's team to apply for a change of venue.
"I'm not going to have a hearing on the leaks," Ellis said in a testy exchange with Downing, urging him to file a brief to show why one was warranted. "You used the word satiated many times. Prove it. Show it."
The case before Ellis is one of two involving Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiring to launder money, bank and tax fraud and failing to register as a foreign agent for a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party.
The case in Virginia is scheduled to start in July while the other case in Washington begins in September.
Manafort was jailed earlier this month after Mueller filed fresh charges against him over alleged witness tampering while he was under house arrest. He waived his right to attend Friday's hearing and did not appear.
(In seventh paragraph, corrects to show that FBI did not probe locker contents until it got a warrant.)
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Nathan Layne; Editing by Mary Milliken, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)