By Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld
(Reuters) – A Russian lawyer who attended a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower under scrutiny in the U.S. special counsel’s probe of Russian election meddling was charged in a separate case that U.S. prosecutors said showed evidence of her ties to the Kremlin.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, who represented Russian defendants in a money laundering case settled in 2017, was charged with obstructing justice in that case for submitting a declaration that she falsely represented came from the Russian government independently, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Veselnitskaya “participated in drafting those supposed exculpatory investigative findings in secret cooperation with a senior Russian prosecutor,” the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan said in a statement.
Veselnitskaya emerged as a critical figure in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign because of her meeting with Trump campaign aides in New York in the run-up to the election. Moscow denies interfering in the election to help Trump.
James Margolin, a spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, said the charges were not based on a referral from Mueller’s office, which declined to comment on the indictment, and were unrelated to the Trump Tower meeting.
Veselnitskaya, who is believed to be in Russia, could not be immediately reached for comment. In testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017 Veselnitskaya said she spoke at the Trump Tower meeting about the Magnitsky Act, legislation to impose U.S. sanctions on Russia, and her allegations against Bill Browder, a hedge fund manager whom the U.S. regarded as a victim of the Russian money laundering case.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, has said he agreed to the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower after being promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and top campaign aide Paul Manafort also attended.
Trump Jr. initially said the meeting was about adoptions of Russian children in the United States, a programme that was halted by Moscow in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on Russian officials called the Magnitsky Act. U.S. authorities said the officials were responsible for the death of Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died after 11 months in police custody in 2009.
If Veselnitskaya remains in Russia, she cannot be compelled to face the charges, suggesting any effort to get her to cooperate will prove difficult.
“They’ve charged her,” said New York lawyer Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as independent counsel examining President Bill Clinton. “Whether or not they can reel her in is another question.”
But the indictment could nevertheless prove significant for solidifying the notion that she was an agent of the Kremlin at the same time she was at the meeting with Trump campaign aides, some former federal prosecutors said.
On the same day as the Trump Tower meeting, Veselnitskaya attended an appeals court hearing in the Manhattan case, which was a forfeiture action against Cyprus-based real estate company Prevezon Holdings Ltd. U.S. prosecutors accused Prevezon of laundering some of the proceeds of a $230 million Russian tax fraud scheme.
Prevezon Holdings Ltd agreed to pay nearly $6 million to settle the case in 2017.
The indictment released on Tuesday said that in the Prevezon case Veselnitskaya filed purported independent findings from senior Russian prosecutors seeking to divert blame from her client that she had in fact helped draft herself.
The Prevezon case and the Trump Tower meeting are connected, according to Browder, the hedge fund manager.
“She was in Trump Tower making the same argument about Magnitsky and me that she lied about in court,” Browder said in an interview.
Magnitsky, who helped uncover the fraud, worked for Browder.
Browder said he viewed Veselnitskaya’s indictment as “karma.”
“What the charges show is she was acting as an agent of Vladimir Putin,” and now, he said, she will never be able to leave Russia. “Poor Natalya.”
Tuesday’s charging of Veselnitskaya made the June 2016 meeting “seem all the more nefarious,” said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “It is one more piece to suggest she is acting on behalf of the Russian government.”
President Trump has denied having prior knowledge of the meeting. Trump has also denied colluding with Russia to influence the election and calls the Mueller investigation a political witch hunt.
Mueller’s investigation and other inquiries have clouded Trump’s two years in office. Mueller has secured more than 30 indictments and guilty pleas and has spawned at least four federal investigations.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Grant McCool)