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Russian lawyer at Trump Tower meeting charged in separate case

FILE — Donald Trump Jr. walks off Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, April 16, 2017. Trump has asked the House Intelligence Committee to open an investigation into leaked information related to his closed interview with the committee in December 2017. (Al Drago/The New York Times/Copyright 2018)

A Russian lawyer whose role at a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower has come under scrutiny from special counsel Robert Mueller was charged Tuesday in a separate case with obstructing justice in a money-laundering investigation.

Natalia Veselnitskaya became a central figure in the Mueller probe when it was revealed that in June 2016, she met with Donald Trump Jr. and other senior Trump campaign advisers after an intermediary indicated she had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Video: Documents released by the Senate Judiciary Committee shed light on the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, where Donald Trump Jr. thought Russians would provide him with damaging information on Hillary Clinton. (Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The indictment unsealed Tuesday relates to a different legal fight involving the Russian and U.S. governments, and charges Veselnitskaya made a "misleading declaration" to the court in 2015, as part of a civil case arising from an investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan into suspected Russian money laundering and tax fraud.

Her work on that case attracted little attention at the time, but her role in the Trump Tower meeting made her the subject of intense investigative interest in the United States, as Mueller's team has sought to determine whether that meeting was part of any broader conspiracy by Trump associates to seek the Kremlin's help in defeating Clinton.

While Vesenitskaya has long proclaimed she is innocent and not a representative of the Russian government, the indictment argues she has worked closely with senior Russian officials for years.

Veselnitskaya did not respond to a request for comment.

The charges against her were filed under seal last year. They stem from a long-running feud between the Russian government and Bill Browder, an American-born businessman who ran Hermitage Capital Management and was once one of Russia's biggest foreign investors until he had a falling out with the country's leaders in 2005.

According to U.S. authorities, lawyers whom Browder hired discovered a criminal scheme that had targeted Hermitage-affiliated companies, in which sham lawsuits were filed against those companies. In the lawsuits, members of a criminal organization posed as both plaintiffs and defendants in the cases, admitting wrongdoing so they could win large money judgments which could then be declared as losses in order to collect large Russian tax refunds, U.S. authorities concluded.

The lawyers Browder hired included Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who played a key role in uncovering the alleged fraud scheme and finding evidence that Russian government officials were complicit, U.S. prosecutors say.

Magnitsky was arrested in Russia and died in custody in 2009. On the day he died, U.S. prosecutors said, he was beaten by guards with a rubber baton, and an ambulance crew called to treat him was deliberately kept outside of his cell until he was dead.

The incident sparked the United States to pass the Magnitsky Act, which allowed the U.S. government to sanction Russian officials found to have committed human rights violations there. The Russian government has spent years trying to end those sanctions and have Browder arrested.

On Tuesday, Browder called Veselnitskaya's indictment "the definition of karma," adding: "When all is said and done, all the truth will come out."

In 2014, U.S. authorities were investigating whether Prevezon Holdings, a Cyprus-based real estate corporation, orchestrated the lawsuit and tax scheme that targeted Browder's companies.

Veselnitskaya represented Prevezon Holdings in that civil case, which led the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan to seek millions of dollars in forfeiture from the company and others connected to the tax-refund scheme.

As U.S. officials in New York pursued the financial investigation, they asked Russian prosecutors for assistance. In response, Russian prosecutors provided what they called "the results of the investigation carried out in its territory" and accused Browder of fraud, according to the new indictment. But they refused to provide the requested records.

In November of 2015, Veselnitskaya submitted a declaration to the judge overseeing the Prevezon case, asserting that she had gone to great lengths to acquire the Russian government's response to the U.S. records request. In 2017, the U.S. attorney's office settled its civil case against Prevezon for more than $5.8 million.

According to the indictment, Veselnitskaya's 2015 filing to the court in the Prevezon case amounted to obstruction of justice because she "made to the court a false and misleading declaration implying that she had not participated in the drafting" of the Russian government's response to the U.S. request for records.

The indictment charges that, contrary to those claims, U.S. investigators obtained emails between Veselnitskaya and a Russian prosecutor in which, together, they worked on the language of the Russian government's response.

The thrust of the charge is that Veselnitskaya stymied prosecutors' investigation by working with the Russian government to prevent the United States from acquiring documents that could have aided their investigation, while claiming to the court that she was not acting in concert with Russian prosecutors.

A lawyer at BakerHostetler, which represented Prevezon at the time of the November 2015 filing, declined to comment.

Veselnitskaya, who has deep experience in Russian political and legal matters, had been brought on by Prevezon to fight the lawsuit, though she also lobbied more broadly against the political outgrowths of the allegations against the company. When she met with Trump Jr. and others, she talked about her opposition to the Magnitsky Act.

Veselnitskaya has in the past sought to dispute her characterization as a "government attorney," noting that she worked only in the prosecutor's office of the province that surrounds but does not include Moscow. "A regional prosecutor is not the Kremlin," she said previously.

The indictment unsealed Tuesday also underscores how some of the key characters in the Russian government's fight with Browder re-appeared in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Lawyers for Prevezon hired a research firm, Fusion GPS, to collect information about Browder. Separately, Fusion was hired by a Republican donor and then a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign to explore any ties between Donald Trump and Russia. That work produced a dossier of unverified allegations against the president that played a key role in the early days of the FBI's investigation of Trump.

A lawyer for Fusion declined to comment.

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This article was written by Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky, reporters for The Washington Post.