The special counsel's office has charged a lawyer who did work for the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice with lying to the FBI, according to court filings unsealed on Tuesday.
Alex van der Zwaan, 33, an attorney, is accused of lying to investigators about his interactions with Rick Gates — the former Donald Trump campaign official and longtime associate of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman who is also facing criminal charges in the special counsel's investigation — and an unidentified individual referred to in charging papers as "Person A."
Van der Zwaan, who was born in Brussels, Belgium, and is a Dutch citizen, pleaded guilty in court on Tuesday afternoon to one felony count of making false statements. Sentencing is currently set for April 3. Prosecutors and van der Zwaan's lawyers told the judge they believe he'll face a sentencing range between zero and six months in prison; the crime he's charged with carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.
In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors agreed not to pursue charges against him in connection with any other false statements he made in November or December, destruction of documents or evidence, or violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires individuals who lobby on behalf of foreign entities to register with the US government, in connection with his work for the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice.
According to the criminal information filed by special counsel Robert Mueller's office, which is dated Feb. 16, investigators asked van der Zwaan in November about his work in 2012 for the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice preparing a report on the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister. The plea agreement and statement of offense filed in court on Tuesday are both dated Feb. 14.
Special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said during Tuesday's plea hearing that van der Zwaan made the false statements while the special counsel's office was investigating violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act by Manafort, Gates, "and others." Weissmann said van der Zwaan made the false statements during a Nov. 3 meeting with the FBI and prosecutors when he was with counsel and had been warned about lying.
Van der Zwaan is accused of falsely telling investigators that his last communication with Gates was an "innocuous text message" in mid-August 2016, when he had spoken with Gates in September 2016 about the Tymoshenko report.
Prosecutors alleged that van der Zwaan falsely said that his last communication with Person A was a conversation in 2014 when they "discussed Person A's family," when he also spoke with Person A in September 2016 about the Tymoshenko report. According to court papers, van der Zwaan recorded calls with Person A and Gates. Weissmann said that Person A was a "colleague" of Manafort and Gates, who was located "principally" in Ukraine.
Van der Zwaan is also accused of deleting and failing to produce emails to the special counsel's office and a law firm referred to as "Law Firm A," including an email between him and Person A in September 2016. Weissmann said in court that in that email, Person A had asked van der Zwaan to contact them using an encrypted service.
Van der Zwaan's case is the sixth criminal matter made public by the special counsel's office. Prosecutors on Friday announced that a federal grand jury had indicted the Russia-based Internet Research Agency, two other Russian entities, and 13 Russian individuals, accusing them of interfering with the 2016 election. The special counsel's office also unsealed a criminal case against a California man who pleaded guilty to identity fraud.
The criminal information unsealed on Tuesday does not specify what law firm van der Zwaan worked for when he prepared the Tymoshenko report, but earlier news articles identified him as being part of a team from the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom that prepared a report about Tymoshenko for the Ministry of Justice in 2012.
Skadden released a statement Tuesday morning saying that the "firm terminated its employment of Alex van der Zwaan in 2017 and has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter."
Van der Zwaan's firm biography is no longer on Skadden's website, but the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine archived a version of it. The page stated that he served "as rule-of-law consultant to the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine" and wrote "a report on due process issues associated with a high-profile prosecution." He joined the firm in 2007.
Van der Zwaan appeared in court on Tuesday flanked by four of his lawyers from the law firm Cooley LLP. Lead attorney William Schwartz declined to comment to reporters immediately after the hearing. Van der Zwaan is the son-in-law of German Khan, a Russian bank owner who is suing BuzzFeed News over the publication of an unverified dossier of information concerning President Donald Trump.
Gates and Manafort were indicted by a federal grand jury in late October — just a few days before van der Zwaan met with the special counsel's office — on charges that they conspired to hide their profits from work they performed on behalf of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who served from 2010 to 2014. The indictment alleged that Manafort and Gates's work for Yanukoyvch included lobbying in Congress in connection with the "roll out of a report concerning the Tymoshenko trial commissioned by the Government of Ukraine." The two men were accused of using an offshore account to secretly pay $4 million for the report. They both pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Manafort's daughter, Andrea Shand, worked at Skadden from 2012 to 2016, according to her LinkedIn page. She did not immediately return a request for comment.
According to Weissmann's description in court on Tuesday of van der Zwaan's conduct, van der Zwaan worked "closely" with Gates and Person A in preparing for the release of the Tymoshenko report. Prosecutors accused van der Zwaan of understating the extent of his involvement with respect to the report — according to court papers, van der Zwaan gave an advance draft to a public relations team hired by the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice and gave talking points to Gates, without authorization from the attorney in charge — but Weissmann told the judge there was "disagreement" about van der Zwaan's state of mind in making those representations to the FBI and prosecutors, so that wasn't part of the criminal charge.
A court in Ukraine sentenced Tymoshenko, accused of abusing her position in connection with a 2009 gas deal with Russia, to jail time in late 2011. Reuters reported at the time that the case was "regarded widely in the West as politically orchestrated."
The New York Times reported in September that the Justice Department had asked Skadden for information about its work for Yanukovych and his government.
Van der Zwaan was released until his next court date. He had to turn over his passport to the FBI, and must stay in the Washington metropolitan area. He'll be allowed to travel to Manhattan, where most of his lawyers are based, as long as he gives advance notice to the Pretrial Services Agency, but he will have to get the judge's permission to travel elsewhere in the United States.
As part of the plea agreement, van der Zwaan gave up his right to profit in the future from sharing the story of his work for Ukraine or of his criminal case. It does not include a section requiring him to cooperate with the special counsel's office going forward, something that was included in plea deals reached with Mueller's office by Trump's former national security adviser Mike Flynn and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
According to van der Zwaan's lawyer, he has been in the United States since early November. They asked to expedite sentencing because his wife, who is in London, is pregnant and has a due date later in the summer.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Read the Statement of Offense filed in United States v. Alex van der Zwaan:
Read the plea agreement filed in United States v. Alex van der Zwaan:
Zoe Tillman is a legal reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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