Lawyer Who Was Said to Have Dirt on Clinton Had Closer Ties to Kremlin Than She Let On
Posted April 27, 2018 8:04 p.m. EDT
MOSCOW — The Russian lawyer who met with Trump campaign officials in Trump Tower in June 2016 on the premise that she would deliver damaging information about Hillary Clinton has long insisted that she is a private lawyer, not a Kremlin operative trying to meddle in the presidential election.
But newly released emails show that in at least one instance two years earlier, the lawyer, Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, worked hand in glove with Russia’s chief legal office to thwart a Justice Department civil fraud case against a well-connected Russian firm.
Veselnitskaya also appears to have recanted her earlier denials of Russian government ties. During an interview to be broadcast Friday by NBC News, she acknowledged that she was not merely a private lawyer but a source of information for a top Kremlin official, Yuri Y. Chaika, the prosecutor general.
“I am a lawyer, and I am an informant,” she said. “Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.”
The previously undisclosed details about Veselnitskaya rekindle questions about whom she was representing when she met with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and others at Trump Tower in Manhattan during the campaign. The meeting, one focus of the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference, was organized after an intermediary promised that Veselnitskaya would deliver documents that would incriminate Clinton.
Veselnitskaya had long insisted that she met the president’s son, his son-in-law and his campaign chairman in a private capacity, not as a representative of the Russian government.
“I operate independently of any governmental bodies,” she wrote in a November statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I have no relationship with Mr. Chaika, his representatives and his institutions other than those related to my professional functions as a lawyer.”
But that claim had already been undercut last fall by revelations that her talking points for the Trump Tower meeting — detailing tax and financial fraud accusations against two Democratic Party donors tied to a Kremlin opponent — matched those in a confidential memorandum circulated by Chaika’s office.
And a sheaf of Veselnitskaya’s email correspondence released Friday appeared to show that her relationship with Chaika’s office is far closer than she has described.
The emails were obtained by Dossier, an organization set up by Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, a former tycoon who was stripped of his oil holdings, imprisoned and then exiled from his native Russia. He has emerged as a leading opponent of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Shown copies of the emails by Richard Engel of NBC News, Veselnitskaya acknowledged that “many things included here are from my documents, my personal documents.” She told the Russian news agency Interfax on Wednesday people determined to discredit her had gained access to her email accounts this year and that she would report the intrusion to Russian authorities.
The Russian prosecutor general’s office did not respond to requests for comment. In an email, Veselnitskaya said she would respond in two weeks.
The exchanges document Chaika’s response to a Justice Department request in 2014 for help with its civil fraud case against a real estate firm, Prevezon Holdings Ltd., and its owner, Denis P. Katsyv, a well-connected Russian businessman.
Federal prosecutors say Veselnitskaya was the driving force on Katsyv’s defense team, a description she has echoed in court filings. In a declaration to the court, she identified herself as a lawyer in private practice, representing Katsyv and his firm.
The Justice Department prosecutors charged Katsyv’s firm in 2013 with using real estate purchases in New York to launder a portion of the profits from a tax scheme in Russia. They were seeking Russian bank, tax and court records, the type of documents that typically form the crux of civil money-laundering cases. The Justice Department asked the Russian government to keep the matter confidential, “except as is necessary to execute this request,” according to court documents. Russia and the United States have a mutual legal assistance treaty governing law-enforcement requests.
The emails indicate that a senior prosecutor on Chaika’s staff, Sergei A. Bochkaryov, worked closely with Veselnitskaya to craft the Russian government response. She knew him well enough to address him in friendly terms.
“Dear Sergei Aleksandrovich!” Veselnitskaya wrote on Aug. 2, 2014, in one of at least 11 emails they exchanged. “I am sending you the edits in the draft response, as per instructions. I am ready to answer any questions that arise, at any time convenient for you.”
The language in their final email exchange matches that of the prosecutor general’s official response to the Justice Department.
The judge in the case later wrote that the Russian government had “spurned” the Justice Department’s request for evidence, instead sending a lengthy treatise on why Veselnitskaya’s client was innocent.
Veselnitskaya’s involvement in the official communications with the Russian government “raises serious questions about obstruction of justice and false statements,” said Jaimie Nawaday, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan who was a prosecutor on the case.
She said Veselnitskaya’s actions should be referred to the U.S. attorney’s office for investigation, including whether she misrepresented herself to the court. “It’s completely outrageous,” Nawaday said. Asked about the Russian government’s culpability, Andrew Keane Woods, a professor at the University of Kentucky law school who specializes in international law, said, “If there was funny business, then they are not really complying with the terms of the treaty.” But, he added, “there is no clear sanction” for failing to comply.
Moscow’s refusal to provide records to the U.S. prosecutors dealt a severe blow to the case. In the end, the Justice Department agreed to settle it for about $6 million. Prevezon did not admit fault.
Although Veselnitskaya appears to have influenced how the Russian prosecutor general’s office justified its decision, its refusal to cooperate was not unexpected. The tax fraud was uncovered by Sergei L. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who, after disclosing the theft, was imprisoned and died in custody. Russian officials contend that the Magnitsky case, which became a cause célèbre in Washington, was a fraud concocted by the West to justify sanctions against Russian citizens.
The release of Veselnitskaya’s emails by Khodorkovsky marks a second foray by Russian opposition figures into the controversy over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. In a telephone interview, Khodorkovsky said someone had deposited the email records anonymously into an electronic drop box maintained by his organization.
This year, Alexei Navalny, a key opposition leader in Russia, also publicized videos that he said hinted at a role for Oleg V. Deripaska, a well-known Russian oligarch, in the Russian government’s efforts to meddle in the American political process. A spokesman for Deripaska said Navalny’s accusations were utterly false.