A London-based lawyer was ordered to serve 30 days in prison after a federal judge Tuesday handed down the first sentence in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Alex van der Zwaan, 33, a son-in-law of a prominent Russian-based banker, pleaded guilty Feb. 20 to lying to the FBI about his contacts in September and October of 2016 with a business associate of onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and with Manafort’s deputy, former Trump aide Rick Gates. Prosecutors said van der Zwaan also destroyed emails the special counsel had requested.
“What I did was wrong,” van der Zwaan said in court Tuesday. “I apologize to the court for my conduct. I apologize to my wife and to my family for the pain I have caused.” While van der Zwaan is not a central figure in the investigation, filings in his case illustrated Mueller’s continuing interest in Manafort and Gates’s actions through Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
According to prosecutors, van der Zwaan, who is a Dutch citizen, said he had been told by Gates that the Manafort associate had been an officer with the Russian military intelligence service. Van der Zwaan turned over secret recordings to Mueller’s investigators that he had made of his conversations with Gates, the associate and a senior partner at his law firm.
Van der Zwaan was a lawyer in the London office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher Flom from 2007 to 2017, when the firm worked with Manafort during a decade when he served as a political consultant in Ukraine.
Manafort, 68, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, money laundering and tax and bank fraud related to his lobbying work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. He has asked a judge to toss out charges, saying prosecutors are pursuing conduct that predate his work for Trump.
Gates, 45, who was deputy campaign manager for Trump and worked with Manafort in Ukraine, pleaded guilty Feb. 23 to conspiracy and lying to the FBI in a cooperation deal with Mueller’s probe.
Van der Zwaan admitted lying and withholding documents about information prosecutors said was “pertinent” to their investigation — that he had been in direct contact in September and October of 2016 with Gates and with the Manafort associate, identified in court documents as “Person A,” an individual who “has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.”
The defendant also admitted that Gates had informed him that Person A was a former officer of the Russian military intelligence service known as the GRU, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors charged that when van der Zwaan was initially interviewed by the FBI on Nov. 3, he falsely told investigators that he last communicated with Gates in mid-August 2016 through an innocuous text message.
Prosecutors made the allegation without naming the Manafort associate but described his role with Manafort in detail. The description matches Konstantin Kilimnik, the Russian manager of Manafort’s lobbying office in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Kilimnik ran Manafort’s office in Kiev during the 10 years he did consulting work there, The Washington Post reported in 2017. Kilimnik worked as a liaison to the Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, with whom Manafort had done business. Emails previously described to The Post show Manafort asked Kilimnik during the campaign to offer Deripaska “private briefings” about Trump’s effort.
A Deripaska spokeswoman has said the billionaire, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was not offered and did not receive briefings.
Kilimnik has previously denied intelligence ties, telling The Post in a statement in June that he has “no relation to the Russian or any other intelligence service.”
A spokesman for Manafort, who is under a court gag order, has previously declined to comment about the van der Zwaan filings.
Van der Zwaan faced a recommended sentence ranging from zero to six months in prison and asked for no prison time for one count of lying to investigators, a felony.
Van der Zwaan is married to the daughter of billionaire German Khan, who owns the Alfa Group, Russia’s largest financial and industrial investment group.
Van der Zwaan attorney William Schwartz said his client’s family connections should not be a reason to penalize him and argued he deserved consideration for the loss of his career, for the suffering of his wife, who is expecting the couple’s first child in August in a difficult pregnancy, and for turning over recorded conversations and other evidence of his guilt.
“It is unusual conduct to make a false statement and then immediately provide proof of a false statement,” Schwartz said. He said that if it were another defendant, those tapes “could have found their way to the bottom of the Thames,” the river in London.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson acknowledged van der Zwaan’s character and willingness to turn over evidence of his crimes but said that given his means, allowing him to “pay a fine at the door and walk away would not send a message of deterrence. It would do the opposite.”
“It is a message that needs to be sent, particularly because you are an attorney,” Jackson said.
Jackson said that she did not know whether van der Zwaan was motivated to join Manafort and Gates for excitement, for the money or because he was engaged in a deeper “coverup,” but that in lying “he put his own interests ahead of the interests of justice” in an investigation of national and international importance into whether the U.S. democratic process was corrupted.
Prosecutors said that van der Zwaan concealed that Gates directed him in September 2016 to contact Person A. Van der Zwaan recorded his conversations with each of them, as well as a separate conversation he had with Gregory Craig, a Skadden senior partner overseeing work involving Manafort.
Van der Zwaan also deleted emails rather than turning them over to authorities, including one from Person A directing him to communicate using encrypted applications, and others showing he explored leaving the law firm to work directly for Gates and Manafort around 2012 and 2013.
The subject of the 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.