Special counsel files new charge in Russia probe

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Tuesday stepped up pressure on two former Trump campaign aides to cooperate in his probe into possible collusion with Russian Federation, unsealing a criminal charge against a lawyer for lying to Mueller's investigators.

Both have been indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller on charges including "a conspiracy against the United States", in the course of his investigation into Russian election meddling.

Prosecutors charged Alex van der Zwaan with making false statements to federal agents on Friday.

The U.S. special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election charged an attorney Tuesday with lying to federal investigators about his interactions with a former Trump campaign official.

The charging document also says he claimed that he exchanged an "innocuous text message" with Gates in mid-August 2016, and said falsely that was their last interaction.

In early November, prosecutors questioned van der Zwaan on his work with worldwide law firm Skadden Arps.

According to the court filing, prosecutors say van der Zwaan lied to federal investigators about his role in the production of a report on the trial of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

After being pressured by American and Ukrainian prosecutors, Skadden refunded about half the amount it was paid to the Ukrainian government.

Ukraine's investigators have alleged that Yanukovych's government evaded Ukrainian publiccontracting rules by only paying Skadden $12,000 for the report-just below the threshold that would require a public bidding process-and then paying the firm $1.1 million a year later, with Skadden apparently having done no more work for Ukraine. The case "sends a signal to both Paul Manafort and Rick Gates: cooperate or risk greater trouble in the future". The two also failed to disclose lobbying work on behalf of then-Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych and then tried to hide that work as it came to light in August 2016, the US said.

Van Der Zwaan has a plea hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at US District Court in Washington, DC.

Yanukovych, a pro-Russian strongman from Ukraine's Party of Regions, hired Skadden to justify the proceedings against Tymoshenko - who was his political opponent - to the U.S. government.

Mr Manafort and Mr Gates were indicted in October previous year as part of Mr Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling. Parts of Steele's work were also used in obtaining a secret warrant to monitor Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser. Skadden insists the report was accurate.

On Tuesday, Skadden Arps released a statement saying it had fired van der Zwaan past year, and it "has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter".

Van Der Zwaan is the son-in-law of Russian oligarch German Khan, the Kyiv Post reported.

Ukraine's prosecutor also wanted to question Skadden's lead lawyer on the report, Gregory B. Craig, who served as President Obama's White House counsel, as well as Clifford M. Sloan, who also worked in the Obama administration.

Yanukovych was ousted from the presidency in 2014 amid widespread protests against his Russia-friendly positions and his decision to back out of a deal that would have promoted closer ties between Ukraine and the West and distanced Ukraine from Russian Federation.

Manafort and Gates are accused of failing to register as agents in the USA for political consulting they did in Ukraine for pro-Russian politicians.

Last year, USA intelligence agencies found that Russian Federation had meddled in the election and that its goals eventually included aiding Trump who won a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Manafort is accused of laundering money to buy houses, cars, clothes and landscaping services.

She is one of the top political rivals of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who hired Manafort and Gates as political consultants for more than a decade. "Prosecutors typically very methodically start with low level offenders and try to work their way up the chain", said Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney for the Eastern District of MI.

  • Jon Douglas