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In Mueller probe, son-in-law of Russian businessman pleads guilty to false statements

What you need to know about Paul Manafort's ties to Russia. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

The Dutch son-in-law of one of Russia’s wealthiest men pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Washington to making false statements in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Alex van der Zwaan was charged with lying to the FBI about his contacts with Rick Gates, who served as a top official on President Trump’s campaign and a longtime business partner of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Based in London, van der Zwaan worked for the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which worked with Manafort and Gates when they served as political consultants in Ukraine.

Van der Zwaan is the son-in-law of German Khan, a billionaire and an owner of Alfa Group, Russia’s largest financial and industrial investment group.

In a court appearance, the 33-year-old pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to investigators, a felony. He is facing a recommended sentence ranging from zero to six months in prison when he is sentenced April 3.

His plea deal comes as Gates has been in plea negotiations with the special counsel, according to a person familiar with the situation. Gates’s attorneys declined to comment.

Mueller charged Manafort and Gates in October with conspiracy, fraud and money-laundering charges related to lobbying work they did for a Russian-friendly political party in Ukraine and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

With van der Zwaan, Mueller’s sprawling probe has now netted four guilty pleas, including from former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

On Friday, Mueller’s team also indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies with meddling in the 2016 election through a social-media campaign in which they falsely posed as Americans to promote Trump, disparage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and sow discord among voters.

Judge lashes out at ‘unacceptable’ delays in setting trial of Manafort and Gates in Mueller probe

Like the Manafort and Gates charges, van der Zwaan’s case is rooted in Ukraine, where Manafort worked as an international political consultant starting in 2005.

In a two-page charging document, prosecutors alleged that van der Zwaan falsely told federal investigators that he last communicated with Gates in mid-August 2016 through an innocuous text message.

Prosecutors said van der Zwaan was lying, and that he spoke to Gates and another unnamed person in September 2016 using encrypted communications — conversations that he recorded.

Prosecutors did not identify the second person with whom van der Zwaan spoke other than to say that the person was a longtime business associate of Manafort who was principally based in Ukraine at the time and spoke to van der Zwaan in Russian.

Prosecutors said van der Zwaan also deleted emails rather than turning them over to Skadden, which was gathering documents for the special counsel. One document he deleted, prosecutors said, was an email requesting that he use encrypted communications.

The communication between van der Zwaan and Gates came shortly after Manafort resigned from Trump’s campaign in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged Manafort had accepted off-the-books cash payments for his work in Ukraine. Gates continued to work for the campaign through the election and later worked for Trump’s inaugural committee.

In court, prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said investigators spoke with van der Zwaan on Nov. 3 and again on Dec. 1 as part of the special counsel’s examination of possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act by Manafort, Gates “and others.” The law requires people to register with the Justice Department before lobbying or performing public-relations work for foreign governments and political parties.

The subject of the 2016 recorded phone call, prosecutors said, was a 2012 report prepared by van der Zwaan’s law firm about the jailing of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych had imprisoned Tymoshenko, a political rival, after a gas supply controversy in 2009 involving Russia.

The Skadden report has been controversial in Ukraine in part because its findings seemed to contradict the international community’s conclusion that Tymoshenko had been unjustly jailed.

In addition, the Ukrainian government claimed to have paid only $12,000 for the report, an amount that put it just below the limit that would have required competitive bidding for the project under Ukrainian law.

Prosecutors have alleged that Manafort and Gates used an offshore account to secretly pay $4 million for the report.

Weissmann said Tuesday that Manafort and Gates hoped to get the Times to cover the report before its contents were revealed in Europe, potentially to improve the reputation of Yanukovych in the United States, where his image had taken a hit after the jailing of Tymoshenko.

As part of that lobbying effort, Weissmann said van der Zwaan had taken an advanced copy of the report in 2012 without authorization and provided it to a public-relations team, then providing Gates with talking points about it.

In a statement Tuesday, Skadden said van der Zwaan had worked at the firm since 2007 but was terminated in 2017. Skadden said the firm was “cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter.”

Kenneth McCallion, a lawyer who unsuccessfully sued Manafort in New York on Tymoshenko’s behalf, said he was pleased that Mueller’s team appears to have taken on the issue of Manafort’s work in Ukraine, including in the jailing of his former client. “I’m relieved that this matter did not fall through the cracks,” he said.

Khan, van der Zwaan’s father-in-law, is a native of Kiev, Ukraine. Along with two other Alfa Bank owners, Khan has filed a defamation suit against Fusion GPS, the Washington private intelligence firm that hired former British spy Christopher Steele to research Trump’s ties to Russia during the campaign. Steele’s reports had included allegations about Alfa Bank and its ties to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Khan and other Alfa Bank owners have also sued BuzzFeed, which published the dossier in January 2017.

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