WASHINGTON -- A lawyer has pleaded guilty to lying to U.S. federal law enforcement agents in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s growing criminal investigation into interactions between Russian officials and associates of President Donald Trump.
Alex van der Zwaan, whose father-in-law is Russian billionaire German Khan, entered his plea on February 20 in U.S. District Court in Washington. He is the sixth person to plead guilty to or be indicted by Mueller’s team.
Van der Zwaan was accused of lying to investigators about his communications with Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide who was indicted last year on charges that included conspiracy to launder money.
A court document filed on February 16 said van der Zwaan deleted or failed to provide e-mails sought by Mueller's team.
Mueller's inquiry, the document said, concerned work van der Zwaan did in 2012 for a U.S. law firm that was hired by the Ukrainian Justice Ministry in connection with the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The charge makes no mention of Trump’s 2016 election campaign, which both Gates and his boss, Paul Manafort, worked on, nor of the election itself. But van der Zwaan’s guilty plea could increase pressure on Gates and Manafort to cooperate with Mueller’s team.
The firm is not identified in the filing, but appears to be Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom, a well-known U.S.-based firm with offices in many countries.
Skadden Arps had been hired in 2011 by Ukraine's justice minister at the time, Oleksandr Lavrynovych, to review the jailing Tymoshenko's, who had been imprisoned for allegedly brokering an unfavorable gas deal with Russia.
Her sentence was viewed by much of the international community -- including Russia -- as political in nature. She was released in February 2014 and later reelected to parliament.
Skadden Arps was hired to draft a report that was used to justify Tymoshenko's imprisonment. The man who commissioned the report was Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign manager until he was fired in August 2016 amid revelations about extensive lobbying work for a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party.
Manafort, a longtime associate of Gates, was indicted himself on similar charges last year.
Serhiy Horbatyuk, Ukrainian prosecutor for special investigations, told RFE/RL last year that van der Zwaan was one of several Skadden Arps lawyers whom Ukrainian authorities want to question in connection with the Tymoshenko report,
Van der Zwann was identified on his page on the social network LinkedIn as an associate in the firm's London office. But in a statement released after the court document became public, Skadden Arps said van der Zwaan was last employed by the firm in 2017.
"The firm terminated its employment of Alex van der Zwaan in 2017 and has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter," it said.
"The firm terminated its employment of Alex van der Zwaan in 2017 and has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter," Skadden said.
Khan, Van der Zwaan's father-in-law, is a billionaire and a part owner of Alfa Group, Russia's largest private banking group. According to the British society magazine Tatler and other reports, Van der Zwaan married Khan's daughter, Eva, last year.
With an estimated fortune of $9.6 billion, according to Forbes, Khan is among Russia's richest businessmen. His wealth and influence resulted in his being included on the so-called "oligarchs list" released by the U.S. Treasury Department last month.
Combined with the bombshell indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies, issued on February 16, van der Zwaan's plea is the latest indication that Mueller is pushing ahead, despite Trump's public statements that the probe should be winding down.
Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, as had George Papadapolous, a Trump campaign foreign policy aide.
And court records filed on February 16 show a California man had pleaded guilty to identity fraud in connection with a so-called Russian "troll factory" that created fictitious accounts on Facebook and other social media in what U.S. authorities call an effort to sow discord in American politics..