Latest Mueller target pleads guilty
Special counsel Robert Mueller's sprawling investigation's latest target pleaded guilty Tuesday to lying to investigators about communications with Trump campaign aide Rick Gates and others involved in a 2012 project related to Ukraine.
Alex van der Zwaan, 33, a Dutch citizen who worked in London for the law firm Skadden Arps, had been involved in preparing a report on Ukraine that was commissioned by Gates and Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman. The pair is facing charges from Mueller over their own work involving Ukraine.
Van der Zwaan entered a guilty plea to the felony false-statements charge during an hour-long hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington. Sentencing was set for April 3, after the defense asked to speed things up because van der Zwaan's wife, Eva, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, is pregnant in London.
Van der Zwaan is the latest to face charges in Mueller's wide-ranging investigation, which revolves around Russian meddling in the 2016 election but can expand to encompass any crimes he finds along the way. Mueller is also looking into whether any Trump aides helped with Moscow's electoral interference and whether the president tried to obstruct the investigation.
Van der Zwaan's guilty plea did not appear clearly related to Trump or to Russian interference. During Tuesday's hearing, prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said van der Zwaan made false statements to authorities about communications in 2016 with Gates and an unnamed person who worked with Gates and Manafort.
Weissmann suggested that Van Der Zwaan is not expected to provide key testimony against others involved in the investigation.
"This is a plea agreement, not a cooperation agreement," Weissmann said.
The report van der Zwaan and others at Skadden were involved in preparing defended former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych for jailing Yulia Tymoshenko, his main political opponent. The report, which Ukraine’s Justice Ministry claimed at the time was “independent,” explored claims that Tymoshenko’s trial and conviction in 2011 were instigated for political reasons and replete with legal violations. Skadden found that though there were procedural flaws in her prosecution, the verdict against Tymoshenko was fair.
Manafort and Gates worked on behalf of Yanukovych's party in Ukraine. They were indicted by Mueller's team last October on charges including acting as foreign agents for the Ukrainian party without registering with U.S. authorities.
POLITICO reported last year that prosecutors in Ukraine have been seeking U.S. help for years to investigate the Skadden-authored report arranged by Manafort.
Weissmann said that during an interview at the special counsel's office in Washington on Nov. 3, 2017, van der Zwaan sought to play down his interactions with Gates, who had been indicted just days earlier. The attorney said incorrectly that his last contact with Gates was in August 2016 and consisted of "an innocuous text message," the charges against him say.
Weissmann also said van der Zwaan told investigators he did not know why Skadden had no record of an email between him and "Person A," whom Weissmann described as a person who was "located principally in Ukraine" and who collaborated with Gates and Manafort on the 2012 report.
"In fact, Mr. van der Zwaan knew full well why," the prosecutor said, saying van der Zwaan had destroyed the emails instead of giving them to his lawyers to turn over to Mueller's team.
Weissmann said van der Zwaan had recorded some of his conversations with Gates and also used "encrypted applications" — identified as the app Viber — to communicate with Gates and with the unnamed colleague. In addition, the September 2016 message van der Zwaan withheld from investigators discussed the importance of keeping their communications private, Weissmann said.
Van der Zwaan, accompanied by at least four attorneys from the New York law firm Cooley LLP, told the judge Tuesday that he had, in fact, misled Mueller's investigators about the contacts with Gates and others related to the 2012 report.
Weissmann appeared to absolve Skadden of involvement in van der Zwaan's effort to hide evidence. The prosecutor said the September 2016 email cited in the charge was not only withheld from investigators but also from the law firm.
Weissmann also said van der Zwaan appeared to have violated instructions from others at Skadden by leaking a draft copy of the 2012 report to a public relations company working with Manafort and Gates before the document's official release.
"The firm was trying to be very careful, I think," Weissmann said of Skadden.
The firm issued a statement saying it had dismissed van der Zwaan last year.
Van der Zwaan is married to the daughter of a Ukrainian-Russian energy mogul, German Khan, who Forbes ranks 138th on its list of billionaires, with a net worth of $9.3 billion.
Khan is a major owner of Alfa Group, a politically connected Russian financial conglomerate that briefly drew FBI scrutiny after reports that the group's banking arm had unusual online contact with a Trump Organization computer server. Many computer experts say the contact was likely meaningless, though some remain suspicious.
Khan is suing BuzzFeed and the private investigation firm Fusion GPS over BuzzFeed's publication of a "dossier" containing a mix of accurate, inaccurate and unverified claims about Trump’s ties to Russia.
The dossier mentions Khan only once, as a key backer of Alfa Bank — an institution which the intelligence compilation alleges has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and assisted the Kremlin's 2016 election influence scheme.
Van der Zwaan has been in the U.S. since the interview in November. Jackson released him on his own recognizance Tuesday. He's surrendered his passport and is required to stay in the Washington area but can travel to Manhattan to meet with his lawyers.
Defense attorney William Schwartz said van der Zwaan is eager to wrap up the proceedings because his wife is experiencing a "difficult pregnancy in London."
As they left the courthouse following a visit to the probation department after the court hearing Tuesday, van der Zwaan and Schwartz declined to comment to reporters.
While van der Zwaan faces a maximum possible sentence of five years in prison, prosecutors and the defense agreed that sentencing guidelines appear to call for a sentence of zero to six months.
The plea deal protects van der Zwaan from facing additional charges in the case. Under the agreement, he cannot be charged with any further counts relating to the destruction or withholding of evidence from Mueller's office or in connection with possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the preparation and release of the 2012 report.