- Alex van der Zwaan, a wealthy Russian lawyer who was charged with making false statements to the FBI during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon.
- Van der Zwaan’s guilty plea will likely help Mueller build his case against Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign.
- Manafort was responsible for commissioning a report that Van der Zwaan worked on which was designed to justify the trial of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to the US. At the time, Manafort was consulting for Tymoshenko’s rival, Ukrainian president and pro-Russian strongman Viktor Yanukovych.
- Prosecutors say Van der Zwaan also made false statements about an interaction with Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide.
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Alex van der Zwaan, a wealthy and well-connected Russian lawyer who special counsel Robert Mueller charged last week with making false statements to the FBI, pleaded guilty on Tuesday afternoon.
And the plea deal could spell trouble for Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign who has been charged with 12 counts related to money laundering, tax fraud, conspiracy against the US, and failure to register as a foreign agent.
Van der Zwaan represents the interests of numerous Russian oligarchs. He is also the son-in-law of German Khan, the Ukrainian-Russian billionaire who controls Russia’s Alfa Bank. The institution attracted scrutiny last year, when a dossier published by former British spy Christopher Steele alleged that Alfa Bank had played a role in meddling in the 2016 US election.
Van der Zwaan was charged with “wilfully and knowingly” making “false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and representations” to federal investigators about his work for the law firm Skadden, Arps, Meagher, & Flom LLP and Affiliates in 2012. He was also accused of misleading federal investigators about his communications with Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime associate who also worked on the Trump campaign, during the 2016 election.
Manafort asked Skadden in 2012 to compile a report about the 2011 trial of the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko – an effort Van der Zwaan was involved in. Manafort’s request was made at the behest of Viktor Yanukovych, then the Ukrainian president and Tymoshenko’s rival in the country’s 2010 election.
Tymoshenko was jailed in 2011 after the Ukrainian government convicted her of abuse of power. Her trial and subsequent conviction were criticised by human-rights groups and deemed politically motivated by the US, the UK, German, Italy, Spain, and other European countries.
Skadden was roped into the controversy over the Tymoshenko report when it emerged that the former Ukrainian Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych embezzled over $US1 million to pay the law firm for its work.
Skadden has done a significant amount of consulting for Russian oligarchs in Moscow and abroad. It has also represented Alfa Bank in a number of financial disputes stretching back years. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that [Van der Zwaan] decided to marry daughter of [German Khan],” said Ilya Zaslavskiy, the Head of Research at the Free Russia Foundation, a US-based non-profit.
After facing mounting pressure from American and Ukrainian prosecutors, Skadden refunded about half the amount it was paid for the Tymoshenko report to the Ukrainian government in June 2017. Three months later, Mueller’s office raised more questions to Skadden about its work for Yanukovych in 2012.
In October 2017, the special counsel charged both Manafort and Gates with 12 counts related to their business dealings and work for the Ukrainian government. Among other things, the indictment accused the two men of using an offshore account to illegally funnel $US4 million to pay for the Tymoshenko report.
Mueller’s office is expected to announce a plea deal with Gates within the next few days, under which Gates has reportedly agreed to testify against Manafort.
Manafort in hot water
Unlike Gates, Manafort has continued resisting Mueller’s attempts to flip him as a cooperating witness in the Russia probe. The special counsel’s team is likely to press Van der Zwaan for information that could help it turn up the heat on Manafort, who has long been a subject over his murky financial ties and work for pro-Russian interests. He was also a top Trump campaign official during several pivotal moments in the 2016 election season.
When Trump first hired Manafort in March 2016, Manafort was known for having worked as a top consultant to Yanukovych, and he is widely credited with helping Yanukovych win Ukraine’s presidency in 2010.
Yanukovych was ousted from the presidency in 2014 amid widespread protests against his Russia-friendly positions and his decision to back out of a deal that would have promoted closer ties between Ukraine and the West and distanced Ukraine from Russia. Yanukovych fled to Russia as the demonstrations escalated and grew bloody, and he is now living under the protection of the Kremlin.
Since then, Ukrainian prosecutors investigating the protests have said Yanukovych ordered security forces to open fire on protesters, and some are looking into whether Manafort had a hand in encouraging Yanukovych.
Manafort also had his share of financial entanglements with entities related to Russia when he joined the Trump campaign. NBC News reported last March that Manafort was associated with at least 15 bank accounts and 10 companies in Cyprus. And The New York Times discovered in August 2016 that the Party of Regions designated nearly $US13 million in undisclosed cash payments in Manafort’s name.
The Atlantic also published several emails last year that appeared to show Manafort using his elevated role in the Trump campaign to resolve a financial dispute with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Manafort was also one of three top Trump campaign officials who attended a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with two Russian lobbyists who offered the campaign dirt on the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“In reality, people lie to federal agents all the time and do not get charged,” said Brian Poe, a longtime former federal prosecutor who is now a criminal defence attorney. While it isn’t rare for a defendant to be charged with making false statements to investigators, Poe said, “it’s not something you see in a majority of federal investigations.”
Van der Zwaan is the fourth person to be charged with misleading investigators in the Russia investigation. The development indicates that “Mueller’s team is trying to leverage everyone they can find to testify against Paul Manafort. The more pressure the place on Manafort, the more likely he is to plead guilty and cooperate against others that might be invovled.”
Van der Zwaan is also accused of lying to investigators about why he did not provide Mueller’s office with a September 2016 email between him and another person referred to in the charge as “Person A.”
The court filing says Van der Zwaan not only spoke with both Gates and the unnamed person about Skadden’s report on Tymoshenko’s trial but also destroyed evidence Mueller’s office was seeking, including the September 2016 email.
Jack Sharman, who served as the House Financial Services Committee’s special counsel during the Whitewater investigation, said Mueller’s plea deal with Van der Zwaan “reinforces the adage that the cover-up is worse than the crime.”
“Mr. van der Zwaan has pleaded guilty to lying about an important timeline, destroying an email and then lying about the destroyed email,” Sharman said. “Such steps are always fraught with danger. In an investigation as well-funded, high-profile and agressive as the Special Counsel’s, they are fatal.”
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