Russian Known for Trump Tower Meeting Faces Charges in U.S.

(Bloomberg) -- Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who met with Trump campaign officials in June 2016, was accused by New York prosecutors of obstructing a U.S. money-laundering case that had broad ramifications for the countries’ relations.

Veselnitskaya, 43, is accused of submitting a misleading declaration in the suit against investment firm Prevezon Holdings Ltd. She had presented a report from a supposedly independent investigation that exonerated her client, claiming she’d “gone to great lengths” to get a copy of it. In fact, the U.S. said, she worked with Russian prosecutors to draft the findings.

“Veselnitskaya secretly schemed with a senior Russian prosecutor to provide false information to U.S. law enforcement in an attempt to influence the legal proceedings,” Angel Melendez, special agent in charge of the New York office of Homeland Security Investigations, said in a written statement.

The case underscores ties between Veselnitskaya and the Russian government and shows that federal prosecutors have been able to read her emails. This is a potential area of interest for Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he looks into the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, which had been arranged on the pretext of providing political dirt on Donald Trump’s Democratic political opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, attended the meeting with Veselnitskaya and others. Manafort has since been prosecuted by Mueller and is awaiting sentencing for unrelated fraud and tax crimes as well as his failure to disclose work for a Ukrainian politician tied to Russia.

The charges unsealed on Tuesday relate to the Prevezon case, in which the U.S. sought to seize money that was allegedly part an elaborate Russian tax heist totaling $230 million, some of which was laundered using New York real estate.

In that suit, the U.S. accused Moscow businessman Denis Katsyv, Prevezon’s main shareholder, of helping to launder the money by buying Manhattan condominiums. Money was siphoned out of Russia through a maze of foreign banks and concealed in assets and accounts around the world, the U.S. said.

The case was settled on the eve of trial, with the U.S. agreeing to take $5.9 million. Both sides claimed victory. Prevezon didn’t admit wrongdoing.

The case had broader ramifications for the U.S.-Russia relationship, leading to a dispute that reverberates to this day and continues to figure in investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer working for Bill Browder’s Hermitage Capital, died in Russian custody after uncovering what he said was the massive tax fraud. After his death, the U.S. adopted sanctions to punish foreign torture of political dissidents and Russia retaliated by cracking down on American adoptions of Russian children.

“There are no secrets in Russia,” Browder said in an interview Tuesday, after the indictment against Veselnitskaya was unsealed. “Whatever crimes have been committed are known to the Department of Justice, and step by step they will prosecute them.”

In the new criminal case, Veselnitskaya is accused of sharing with the Russian prosecutor multiple drafts of the Russian government’s legal response to the U.S., which included claims that people tied to Browder’s company -- and not corrupt officials -- were behind the fraud.

Veselnitskaya is believed to be in Russia, said James Margolin, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan. She faces as much as 10 years in prison on the obstruction of justice charge, if she’s ever brought to stand trial in the U.S.

Speaking in an interview with Russian state television broadcast Wednesday, Veselnitskaya dismissed the charges against her as a bid to hamper her “professional activities,” in particular her lobbying in the U.S.

The Trump Tower meeting has been a focus for Mueller. Trump Jr. initially described the meeting as an uneventful discussion of Russian adoption policies. Pressed further, he disclosed emails indicating that Russian nationals were offering information that could harm Clinton’s candidacy, and he defended his decision to take the meeting.

President Trump and his son have both insisted there was no bargain struck between the campaign and the Russian government at that meeting. Veselnitskaya told a similar story. Tuesday’s charges portray her as untruthful, willing to obstruct an inquiry into Russian government behavior that could prove embarrassing.

The case is U.S. v Veselnitskaya, 18-cr-904, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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