New York, Jan 9: The Russian lawyer who attended the Trump Tower meeting that is a focus of the special counsel's investigation into possible collusion was charged with obstructing an unrelated tax-fraud case, federal prosecutors in New York has said.
Natalya Veselnitskaya was indicted on one count of obstruction of justice after prosecutors said she teamed up with a senior Russian prosecutor and submitted deceptive declarations in a civil proceeding involving a Russian tax refund fraud scheme. The indictment, which is unrelated to Russian election interference and brought by the Manhattan US attorney, illustrates Veselnitskaya's close ties to the Russian government, which she has denied.
It renews questions about the circumstances of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which also was attended by Donald Trump Jr. and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump Jr. has acknowledged that he met with Veselnitskaya because he had been told she could offer damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. But Trump Jr. and Kushner said the meeting amounted to nothing and mostly involved Russia's ban on American adoptions in response to US sanctions.
Veselnitskaya has previously denied acting on behalf of Russian officials when she met with the Trump team, telling Congress she operates "independently of any government bodies." Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the presidential campaign, has focused on the Trump Tower meeting and called some participants before a federal grand jury.
He also has scrutinised Trump's role in drafting a misleading public statement about the meeting's content. James Margolin, a spokesman for the Manhattan US attorney's office, said Veselnitskaya's criminal case did not originate from a referral by Mueller, noting the allegations relate only to her work for the Russian company and "are unrelated to any other investigation."
Peter Carr, a spokesperson for Mueller's office, declined comment on the case.
Veselnitskaya, a 43-year-old attorney based in Russia, did not respond to a telephone call and text message from The Associated Press. The indictment unsealed Tuesday will curtail Veselnitskaya's international travel and expose her to arrest if she comes to the US But Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. and she will likely never appear in a US court if she remains there.
The indictment was filed under seal in December and publicly announced Tuesday by Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman. The criminal case relates to real estate firm Prevezon Holdings Ltd. and its role in an alleged 230 million tax-fraud scheme that federal officials say was "perpetrated by a criminal organization that included in its ranks corrupt Russian officials."
In 2013, US prosecutors brought a civil lawsuit against the company that sought to recover millions of dollars worth of New York real estate and other property on the grounds that it was tainted by money laundering. The fraud scheme involved using stolen corporate identities to obtain Russian tax refunds and funneling the illegal proceeds through a network of shell companies. Veselnitskaya was retained to assist the defendants.
As part of that representation, the indictment accuses her of misrepresenting a declaration that she submitted to a federal judge. The indictment says Veselnitskaya claimed that the material she submitted to the court was an independent finding when in fact the document was an "intentionally misleading declaration" that she had secretly drafted with a senior Russian government prosecutor, who is not named in court papers.
Prevezon settled the civil case in 2017 but balked at a negotiated payment. A federal judge ordered the firm last February to pay USD 6 million to the US government. The companies that claimed they had been defrauded by Prevezon were owned by Hermitage Capital Management, whose CEO William Browder aided the government's case.
Browder has championed sanctions against Russia, accusing its officials of collaborating in the imprisonment that led to the death of his Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was arrested while investigating the fraud case and died in a Russian prison in 2009. Congress passed the Magnitsky Law in 2012 to target those allegedly involved in his arrest and death with financial sanctions.
Veselnitskaya's legal work for Prevezon is also connected to another Trump Tower meeting participant, Rinat Akhmetshin. Prevezon owner Denis Katsyv helped fund a lobbying effort carried out by Akhmetshin that sought to poke holes in Magnitsky's story. Akhmetshin, a former Russian military officer and Washington lobbyist, later accompanied Veselnitskaya to the Trump Tower meeting.