By Luc Cohen and Jody Godoy
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Tom Barrack, the private equity executive and onetime fundraiser for former President Donald Trump, and his former assistant acted as a foreign government's illegal back channel to the Trump administration, a U.S. prosecutor said on Wednesday in opening statements at their criminal trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hiral Mehta said Barrack, the 75-year-old former chairman of the investment firm now known as DigitalBridge Group Inc, and his former assistant Matthew Grimes acted as unregistered agents for the United Arab Emirates between 2016 and 2018.
"They did so in the corrupt pursuit of money and power," Mehta said in federal court in Brooklyn.
Barrack and Grimes sought to influence Trump's campaign and administration and advance the Middle Eastern country's interests, while seeking millions of dollars in investments from Emirati government-controlled funds, he said.
Barrack, who chaired Trump's inauguration committee, has pleaded not guilty, as has Grimes.
Barrack's attorney Michael Schachter said in opening statements that there is no evidence that Barrack agreed to act at the UAE's direction.
He said Barrack and Grimes' interactions with the UAE and other foreign officials were part of their work for DigitalBridge, then known as Colony Capital.
Another co-defendant, Emirati businessman Rashid Al Malik, is at large.
Twelve jurors and four alternates will hear evidence in the trial, which is expected to last about a month.
During jury selection, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan dismissed some potential jurors who he felt could not set aside strong feelings about Trump to weigh the evidence in the case. Trump may be called as a witness at the trial, Cogan told several jurors.
The trial is expected to focus on allegations that UAE officials gave Barrack input about what to say in television interviews, what then-candidate Trump should say in a 2016 energy policy speech, and who should be appointed ambassador to Abu Dhabi.
Prosecutors have said Barrack, Grimes and Al Malik never told the U.S. attorney general they were acting as UAE agents, as required under federal law.
Barrack's lawyers have said the U.S. State Department, and Trump himself, knew of his contacts with Middle East officials, showing that Barrack did not intend to be a foreign agent.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)