WASHINGTON -- An attorney whose firm was accused of whitewashing abuses by the former president of Ukraine in cooperation with Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, on Tuesday became the fourth person to plead guilty in the special counsel's Russia investigation.
The attorney, 33-year-old Alex van der Zwaan, worked in London for the New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He was accused of making false statements regarding communications he had with Rick Gates, a longtime associate of Manafort and a former Trump campaign aide, about work they did in 2012 for the Ukrainian government, according to court papers.
Both Gates and Manafort have been accused by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, of money laundering and of violating tax and lobbying laws. They have pleaded innocent to those charges. The investigation into the two men is centered on foreign lobbying work they did before they worked on Trump's campaign.
Van der Zwaan, a Dutch national, entered the plea in U.S. District Court in Washington. He faces a recommended zero to six months in prison when he is sentenced April 3.
A speaker of Russian, Dutch, English and French, van der Zwaan also is the son-in-law of a wealthy Russian, German Khan, who was on a roster of oligarchs named in a recent Treasury Department list of prominent Russians with links to President Vladimir Putin.
Like the Manafort and Gates charges, van der Zwaan's case is rooted in Ukraine, where Manafort worked as an international political consultant starting in 2005.
In a two-page charging document, prosecutors alleged that van der Zwaan falsely told federal investigators that he last communicated with Gates in mid-August 2016 through an innocuous text message.
Prosecutors said van der Zwaan was lying and that he spoke to Gates and another, unnamed person in September 2016 using encrypted communications -- conversations that he recorded.
Prosecutors did not identify the second person with whom van der Zwaan spoke other than to say that the person was a longtime business associate of Manafort who was principally based in Ukraine at the time and spoke to van der Zwaan in Russian.
Prosecutors said van der Zwaan also deleted emails rather than turning them over to the Skadden law firm, which was gathering documents for the special counsel. One document he deleted, prosecutors said, was an email requesting that he use encrypted communications.
The communication between van der Zwaan and Gates came shortly after Manafort resigned from Trump's campaign in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged Manafort had accepted off-the-books cash payments for his work in Ukraine. Gates continued to work for the campaign through the election and later worked for Trump's inaugural committee.
In court, prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said investigators spoke with van der Zwaan on Nov. 3 and again on Dec. 1 as part of the special counsel's examination of possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act by Manafort, Gates "and others." The law requires people to register with the Justice Department before lobbying or performing public-relations work for foreign governments and political parties.
The subject of the 2016 recorded phone call, prosecutors said, was a 2012 report prepared by van der Zwaan's law firm about the jailing of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Former President Viktor Yanukovych, whose political party was a client of Gates and Manafort, had imprisoned Tymoshenko, a political rival, after a gas supply scandal in 2009 involving Russia.
The Skadden report has been contentious in part because its findings seemed to contradict the international community's conclusion that Tymoshenko had been unjustly jailed.
Critics have said the report essentially whitewashed Yanukovych's human-rights record, and a day after its release, a State Department official called it "incomplete," saying that it "doesn't give an accurate picture" and that the State Department was concerned that "Skadden Arps lawyers were obviously not going to find political motivation if they weren't looking for it."
The Ukrainian government claimed to have paid only $12,000 for the report, an amount that put it just below the limit that would have required competitive bidding for the project under Ukrainian law. But prosecutors allege that Manafort and Gates used an offshore account to secretly pay $4 million for the report.
Weissmann said Tuesday that Manafort and Gates hoped to get the Times to report on the report before its contents were revealed in Europe, potentially to improve the reputation of Yanukovych in the United States, where his image had taken a hit after the jailing of Tymoshenko.
As part of that lobbying effort, Weissmann said, van der Zwaan had taken an advanced copy of the report in 2012 without authorization and provided it to a public-relations team, then providing Gates with talking points about it.
In a statement Tuesday, Skadden said it had fired van der Zwaan last year and that it "has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter."
"The conduct to which Alex has pled guilty is contrary to our values, policies and expectations," the firm added.
Kenneth McCallion, a lawyer who unsuccessfully sued Manafort in New York on Tymoshenko's behalf, said he was pleased that Mueller's team appears to have taken on the issue of Manafort's work in Ukraine, including in the jailing of his former client.
"I'm relieved that this matter did not fall through the cracks," he said.
Van der Zwaan married Khan's daughter last year, according to the Russian editions of Forbes and Tatler magazines.
Khan, who was born in Kiev, shares control of one of Russia's biggest financial and industrial investment conglomerates, Alfa Group, with fellow billionaires Mikhail Fridman and Alexei Kuzmichev. Forbes estimates Khan is worth about $10 billion.
Khan and his partners are suing BuzzFeed News over its publication of a dossier of unsubstantiated allegations about ties between Trump and Russia. The dossier, which is a collection of memoranda authored by former British spy Christopher Steele, makes several claims about Alfa Group that the partners say are false and defamatory.
BuzzFeed is fighting the lawsuit. The dossier has become a political lightning rod because Steele's work was funded in part by Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Parts of Steele's work were also used in obtaining a secret warrant to monitor Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser.
While doing consulting work for Yanukovych, Manafort worked with other firms as well. The Podesta Group, formerly led by a prominent lobbyist and Democratic donor, Tony Podesta, and Mercury Public Affairs have been subpoenaed by the special counsel's office for records and testimony about the work they did for the European Center for a Modern Ukraine. Manafort referred the center, a nonprofit group based in Brussels that had done work with Yanukovych, to the other two Washington-based firms.
Last week, the special counsel's office indicted 13 Russians and three companies for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election with a sophisticated influence campaign on popular social media platforms. An American, Richard Pinedo, of Santa Paula, Calif., also pleaded guilty to identity fraud regarding some bank accounts used by the Russians in their influence campaign.
Information for this article was contributed by Eileen Sullivan and Kenneth P. Vogel of The New York Times; by Spencer S. Hsu and Rosalind S. Helderman of The Washington Post; and by Chad Day, Eric Tucker, Jeff Horwitz, Desmond Butler and Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press.
A Section on 02/21/2018
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