A Russian lawyer who President Donald Trump's son believed was peddling dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign worked with a Russian government official to deceive an American court in an unrelated civil case, federal prosecutors in New York said Tuesday.
Natalya Veselnitskaya was indicted on one count of obstruction of justice after prosecutors said she teamed up with a senior Russian prosecutor and submitted deceptive declarations in a civil proceeding involving a Russian tax refund fraud scheme.
The indictment , though unrelated to Russian election interference, is the first filed against a participant of a Trump Tower meeting at which the president's son expected to receive damaging information about Clinton. It also is the first time U.S. prosecutors have directly connected Veselnitskaya to the Russian government.
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Veselnitskaya was the key participant in the June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner that was described to Trump Jr. as part of a Russian government effort to help his father's campaign. Trump Jr. and Kushner have dismissed the meeting as amounting to nothing and mostly involving Russia's ban on American adoptions in response to U.S. sanctions.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has investigated the meeting, calling some participants before a federal grand jury as he probes the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia. He has also scrutinized Trump's involvement in drafting a misleading public statement about the meeting's content.
On Tuesday, special counsel spokesman Peter Carr declined to say if Mueller's team was involved in the Veselnitskaya case or if the office had referred the matter to prosecutors in New York.
Veselnitskaya, a 43-year-old attorney based in Russia, did not respond to a telephone call and text message from The Associated Press. She has previously denied acting on behalf of Russian officials when she met with the Trump team, telling Congress she operates "independently of any government bodies."
The filing of the charge will curtail Veselnitskaya's international travel and expose her to arrest if she comes to the U.S. But Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. and she will likely never appear in a U.S. court if she remains there.
The indictment was filed under seal in December and publicly announced Tuesday by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman.
The criminal case relates to real estate firm Prevezon Holdings Ltd. and its role in an alleged $230 million tax-fraud scheme that federal officials say was "perpetrated by a criminal organization that included in its ranks corrupt Russian officials."
In 2013, U.S. prosecutors brought a civil lawsuit against the company that sought to recover millions of dollars worth of New York real estate and other property on the grounds that it was tainted by money laundering. The fraud scheme involved using stolen corporate identities to obtain Russian tax refunds and funneling the illegal proceeds through a network of shell companies.
Veselnitskaya, an attorney based in Russia, was retained to assist the defendants. As part of that representation, the indictment accuses her of misrepresenting a declaration that she submitted to a federal judge.
The indictment says Veselnitskaya claimed that the material she submitted to the court was an independent finding when in fact the document was an "intentionally misleading declaration" that she had secretly drafted with a senior Russian government prosecutor, who is not named in court papers.
Prevezon settled the civil case in 2017 but balked at a negotiated payment. A federal judge ordered the firm last February to pay $6 million to the U.S. government.
The companies that claimed they had been defrauded by Prevezon were owned by Hermitage Capital Management, whose CEO William Browder aided the government's case. Browder has championed sanctions against Russia, accusing its officials of collaborating in the imprisonment that led to the death of his Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky was arrested while investigating the fraud case and died in a Russian prison in 2009. Congress passed the Magnitsky Law in 2012 to target those allegedly involved in his arrest and death with financial sanctions.
Veselnitskaya's legal work for Prevezon is also connected to another Trump Tower meeting participant, Rinat Akhmetshin.
Prevezon owner Denis Katsyv helped fund a lobbying effort carried out by Akhmetshin that sought to poke holes in Magnitsky's story. Akhmetshin, a former Russian military officer and Washington lobbyist, later accompanied Veselnitskaya to the Trump Tower meeting.