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Alarm Bells Raised In U.S. About Russian Lawyer Before She Met Trump's Son

Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya speaks to reporters in Moscow on November 8, 2016.

Prior to her controversial meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son, Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya drew the attention and ire of American officials over her alleged lobbying against a U.S. law despised by the Kremlin and a hefty hotel bill handed to U.S. authorities for reimbursement.

Veselnitskaya’s June 2016 face-to-face with Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and others also came months after she told a U.S. federal court that she had been denied a U.S. visa but was granted an exception to defend a Russian businessman in a money-laundering case closely watched by top officials in Moscow.

A central player in a Russian public-relations offensive against a U.S. law punishing Russians accused of rights abuses, Veselnitskaya grabbed headlines over the weekend after The New York Times reported her previously undisclosed meeting with the president's son and other Trump campaign officials.

Trump Jr.'s description of the meeting suggested she had promised damaging information about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who U.S. intelligence says was targeted in a Russian hacking and propaganda campaign aimed at hurting her candidacy.

Donald Trump, Jr.(file photo)
Donald Trump, Jr.(file photo)

​The report on the meeting came amid ongoing congressional and FBI investigations into contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials -- probes that have dogged Trump’s administration despite his denials of any impropriety.

While Veselnitskaya has represented state-owned companies and has ties to Russian officials, the public record does not suggest she has close links to Russia’s senior-most leadership. She does, however, have a reputation as something of a rainmaker in commercial disputes in the Moscow region.

Her critics have accused her of corrupt dealings and leveraging contacts among officials and other powerful players to build her career, allegations she has rejected as false.

But it was during the course of her work in an international push -- including in the United States -- to discredit the 2012 U.S. Magnitsky Act that Veselnitskaya raised alarms among U.S. officials.

'Observing With Interest'

The Magnitsky Act was named for Russian tax auditor Sergei Magnitsky, who died in November 2009 while in police custody after alleged beatings and medical negligence that supporters claim were retribution for implicating tax and law-enforcement officials in a brazen $230 million tax scam.

The law, under which four dozen Russian officials and other alleged rights abusers have been hit with visa bans and financial sanctions, infuriated Moscow, which responded by banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens.

Veselnitskaya represented a Russian businessman, Denis Katsyv, the son of a senior official with state-owned Russian Railways. Katsyv’s company, Prevezon Holdings, was accused in a federal civil-forfeiture case in New York of laundering part of the proceeds of the fraud that Magnitsky uncovered.

Denis Katsyv
Denis Katsyv

In a December 2015 interview, Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika said of the Prevezon action: "We are observing the case with interest from the sidelines."

But following the confirmation of Veselnitskaya’s meeting with Trump’s son, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin does not know who the lawyer is.

"We don’t know who this is, and of course, we can’t keep track of meetings of all Russian lawyers inside the country and abroad," Dmitry Peskov was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying.

Central to Prevezon's defense in the case was undermining the widely accepted narrative of the $230 million tax scam and Magnitsky’s death, which Putin has called a tragedy but not the result of criminal actions.

Veselnitskaya regularly gave interviews accusing Magnitsky’s employer, U.S.-born British investor William Browder, of fabricating the details of the case, and she was a tireless promoter of a controversial film screened in Washington and elsewhere that also sought to discredit Browder.

Less than three months after Trump’s inauguration, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (Republican-Iowa) called for deeper Justice Department investigations into whether Veselnitskaya and others were involved in an anti-Magnitsky Act lobbying campaign that violated U.S. transparency laws.

The New York Times quoted a former senior law enforcement official as saying that Veselnitskaya and her associations had previously attracted the attention of the FBI.

Pricey Hotel, Expensive Meals, And A Visa Waiver

Veselnitskaya also ran afoul of U.S. federal prosecutors in the Prevezon case.

In November 2015, then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara submitted a letter to the judge saying that Prevezon submitted more than $50,000 in expenses during a four-day deposition in New York that were reimbursed from assets "properly seized" by federal authorities.

Those expenses included pricey, boozy meals, as well as a two-night stay at the Plaza Hotel "in a $995/night room for Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was not deposed and did not even attend the depositions in person," Bharara wrote.

Bharara added that Veselnitskaya had been staying at a cheaper hotel but moved to the Plaza "only after the court orally stated that the government would be responsible for reimbursing defendants' expenses." He asked the judge to bar them from requesting further reimbursements.

Two months later, Veselnitskaya told the Manhattan federal court handling the Prevezon case that she had previously been denied a U.S. visa but that she had obtained an exception known as “immigration parole” that allowed her to enter the country to help represent Katsyv.

Veselnitskaya’s visa status at the time of her meeting with Trump’s son was not immediately clear. Court records indicated that the judge in the Prevezon case made at least one request for her immigration parole to be extended.

Prevezon settled the case in May, the day before it was set to go to trial. In what Veselnitskaya portrayed as a clear victory, the company agreed to pay the U.S. government $6 million without admitting wrongdoing.

Hermitage Capital investment fund CEO William Browder (file photo)
Hermitage Capital investment fund CEO William Browder (file photo)

Bait And Switch?

Donald Trump Jr. told The New York Times that his acquaintance who arranged the meeting with Veselnitskya said that she might have “helpful” information about his father’s campaign against Hillary Clinton but that he was not told her name prior to the sit-down.

Trump’s son told the Times that during the meeting, Veselnitskaya initially claimed to have “information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton” but that she offered “no details or supporting information.”

“She then changed subjects and began discussing the adoption of Russian children and mentioned the Magnitsky Act,” Trump Jr. said, adding that he subsequently ended the meeting after it became clear that “the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”

Reached by telephone on July 10, a representative for Veselnitskaya told RFE/RL the lawyer was not immediately available for an interview and that questions should be submitted by e-mail.

E-mailed questions submitted by RFE/RL -- including about what happened at the meeting with Trump’s son and who requested and organized the sit-down -- were not immediately answered.

Veselnitskaya said in a statement to The New York Times on July 8 that she did not discuss the presidential campaign with Trump's son, had “never acted on behalf of the Russian government,” and “never discussed any of these matters with any representative of the Russian government.”

With reporting by Mike Eckel in Washington
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.