Russian lawyer in Trump Tower meeting charged

The US attorney in Manhattan has charged Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. and others in June 2016 promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, in a separate case highlighting her ties to the Russian government.

Posted: Jan. 9, 2019 6:26 AM
Updated: Jan. 9, 2019 6:28 AM

The Russian lawyer who attended a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with members of the Trump campaign was charged by federal prosecutors in New York with obstruction of justice in connection with a money-laundering case, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday that highlighted her ties to the Russian government.

Natalya Veselnitskaya, who gained prominence as a result of a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and other members of the Trump campaign after he had been promised damaging intelligence on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was charged by the Manhattan US Attorney's Office, which had handled the money-laundering case involving a Cyprus-based investment firm and its Russian owner.

As that case proceeded, Veselnitskaya, a member of the defense team in that matter, gave a false declaration to the federal court in New York about a response by the Russian government in that case, concealing from the court that she "had participated in drafting those supposed independent investigative findings in secret cooperation with a senior Russian prosecutor," according to the indictment.

Her false assertion caused the court to make a ruling she sought, denying the US government's motion for partial summary judgment in the money-laundering case, and was used by the investment firm as the basis for multiple court filings during the litigation, prosecutors said Tuesday.

There is little expectation, however, that Veselnitskaya will face the obstruction charge in a US courtroom. A 43-year-old Russian citizen and resident, she is not in the US, and it's unlikely that she'll ever be taken into custody unless she leaves Russia.

Reached by phone Tuesday, she told CNN that she would "defend her professional honor" in the case and declined to comment further about the matter, saying she just learned of the news. She added that she was "frustrated" by US and international media coverage of her.

In announcing the indictment, Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement, "We take seriously our responsibility to protect the integrity of the judicial proceedings in this District, and we will not stand idly by while outside influences seek to corrupt and pervert that process."

After seeing Veselnitskaya's comment, Berman told CNN, "The proper forum for Ms. Veselnitskaya to contest the charge is the federal court in Manhattan where her criminal case is pending."

Though the obstruction charge Tuesday had no apparent link to the Trump Tower matter, the indictment further solidified the ties between Veselnitskaya and the Russian government -- a relationship both she and the Kremlin had denied -- and may renew questions about whom she was representing when she sat with officials from the Trump campaign.

Emails released by Trump Jr. show that he agreed to the meeting after being told the "crown prosecutor of Russia" wanted to give the Trump campaign incriminating information about Clinton. Instead, Trump Jr. later said, Veselnitskaya focused on the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that sanctions Russians accused of violating human rights.

Veselnitskaya has said in interviews that she has a working relationship with Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and that they exchanged information during her lobbying efforts against the Magnitsky Act. She has denied that she has ever worked for the Russian government, and a Kremlin spokesman has said the notion was "absurd."

It's unclear if there was any response from the Trump team to the request from Veselnitskaya concerning the Magnitsky Act. The Trump administration has not moved to roll back the Russian sanctions, and, in fact, new sanctions against Russia have been enacted.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the Trump Tower meeting as part of his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The special counsel's office declined to comment on whether it contributed to the Veselnitskaya investigation or referred it to the US attorney's office. The indictment of Veselnitskaya appears to stem directly from the New York case concerning the Cyprus-based investment firm Prevezon Holdings Ltd. and its Russian owner, Denis Katsyv.

Veselnitskaya attended proceedings in the US for the case, including a hearing in Manhattan on the same day of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

Prevezon was accused by federal prosecutors in New York of stealing $1.9 million from the Russian treasury through a $230 million tax-refund fraud scheme. The alleged scheme was uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer. Magnitsky was later jailed by the Russian government and later died in a Moscow prison under suspicious circumstances.

According to the indictment unsealed Tuesday, Veselnitskaya submitted the false declaration to the court in November 2015, saying the Russian government had attempted to withhold from her its response to a request by the US government in the Prevezon case for bank records and other materials showing the flow of the Russian treasury fraud's proceeds, and suggesting she had been forced to seek a court order to overturn the refusal by the Russian Prosecutor General's Office to provide it.

Emails obtained by New York prosecutors, however, show that in 2014 she had sent messages to the personal account of a supervisor in the Russian Prosecutor General's Office with drafts of a response to the US government's request, according to the indictment.

Her emails contained "numerous tracked changes and comments," the indictment said, plus insertions of at least 31 paragraphs. The Russian prosecutor subsequently sent her a revised draft of the response, along with notes about additional insertions, the indictment said. The final response sent by the Russian government to the US government contained many of Veselnitskaya's insertions, "either essentially verbatim, in rephrased form, or with light edits."

The Russian prosecutor then sought to help Veselnitskaya mask their collaboration by secretly assisting her with filing a formal complaint against his office to make it look as though she had had trouble accessing the Russian response to the US, as she later claimed to the US court.

The Prevezon case was settled before it went to trial.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that Veselnitskaya was charged in connection with the money-laundering case.

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