US Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Tuesday extracted another guilty plea as prosecutors bear down on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates.
Alex van der Zwaan, a former associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, admitted in court in Washington that he misled investigators about the last time he talked with Gates, who was indicted in October with Manafort over their consulting work in Ukraine. Gates is reportedly considering cooperating with Mueller.
The guilty plea was the fourth secured by Mueller in his probe of Russian election meddling. But van der Zwaan was the first of those who didn’t enter into a cooperation agreement with the special counsel’s office. His sentencing is scheduled for April 3, a quick turnaround that bolsters the notion that he’s not cooperating in exchange for leniency. He faces as long as six months in jail under advisory guidelines.
The case against van der Zwaan may increase the pressure on Gates and Manafort. In pleading guilty to false statements, van der Zwaan admitted that he had conversations with Gates and someone in Ukraine that he later tried to hide from US investigators. The case also shows that Mueller can secure a conviction against a non-US citizen. Van der Zwaan, born in Brussels, is a Dutch citizen.
What Mueller may not gain, however, is a cooperator who can provide an inside account of events and documents that prosecutors are trying to unravel. The 33-year-old lawyer was a point person for Skadden in Ukraine, working on cases on behalf of wealthy Russian and Ukrainian clients.
Fluent in English, French, Dutch and Russian, he also is married to the daughter of Russian oligarch German Khan, according to the London Tatler. Van der Zwaan hopes to be punished and freed by August so he can return to his home in London before his wife gives birth, his defense lawyer, William Schwartz, said in court Tuesday.
Van der Zwaan, according to prosecutors, had a hand in a report that Skadden produced in 2012 that largely defended the prosecution and conviction of the country’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. The report defied the view held by the US and the European Union that the case against her was politically motivated.
At the time, Manafort and Gates were coordinating an extensive lobbying campaign in the US to benefit then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a rival to Tymoshenko, according to prosecutors. Gates and Manafort secretly funneled $4 million through offshore accounts to pay for the report, prosecutors said.
Court documents filed Tuesday spelled out communications van der Zwaan had with Gates and with someone in Ukraine, referred to by investigators as Person A, in September 2016. That was just after Manafort’s work in Ukraine came to light, forcing him to leave the Trump campaign.
According to prosecutors, van der Zwaan, Gates and Person A talked by phone and encrypted messages about their fears that Ukrainian prosecutors might bring criminal charges over the report.
Gates sent documents to van der Zwaan that included a preliminary criminal complaint, US authorities said. Van der Zwaan then called Person A in Ukraine, and discussed whether a former Ukrainian minister of justice, Skadden and Manafort might be charged there. He also called a senior Skadden partner, and later talked to Gates. He secretly recorded some of these conversations, according to prosecutors.
However, questioned by US authorities on Nov. 3, 2017, days after Manafort and Gates were indicted, van der Zwaan told investigators that his last contact with Gates was an innocuous text message in mid-August 2016. He last talked with Person A in 2014, he told them. Van der Zwaan also tried to minimize his role in producing the Tymoshenko report, prosecutors said.
Van der Zwaan also deleted and failed to produce emails sought by the special counsel and his firm, prosecutors said.
It’s not clear whether Mueller’s team obtained the tapes and Van der Zwaan’s notes, however, which could amp up pressure on Gates and Manafort and wouldn’t necessarily require Van der Zwaan to stay in the US to give testimony.
Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann translated Person A’s warning in Russian about the preliminary Ukraine charges as essentially "the tip of the iceberg" in court.
Skadden, in a statement, said it terminated van der Zwaan’s employment in 2017 and has been cooperating with authorities in connection with the matter. “The conduct to which Alex has pled guilty is contrary to our values, policies and expectations,” it said.
In exchange for his pleading guilty, Mueller’s team pledged to limit their case against van der Zwaan to the charged infractions, while reserving their right to raise other allegedly illegal conduct at his sentencing.
The case is US v. Van der Zwaan, 18-cr-00031, US District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).