Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Office filed another important criminal charge yesterday (February 20, 2018) as part of its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. These charges are being brought against attorney Alex Van Der Zwaan, who is scheduled to plead guilty later today for lying to the FBI about a conversation he had with Rick Gates, Trump’s Deputy Campaign Chairman. The conversation with Gates was about the work that Van Der Zwaan and his law firm, Skadden Arps, Slate, Meager and Flom, were doing in Ukraine for the pro-Russian regime of then-President Viktor Yanukovich.
Van Der Zwaan, who worked out of the Skadden Arps London office until he was fired last year, was part of that law firm’s legal team that was hired at the behest of Paul Manafort, a senior advisor to the Yanukovich regime and his pro-Russian party during 2011 and 2012, who then went on to become Trump’s Campaign Chairman in 2016. Skadden Arps was hired by the Ukraine government to counter the adverse publicity that the Ukraine government was receiving over its arrest and prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine who lost the presidential election to Yanukovich in 2010.
Immediately after taking office, Yanukovich directed that a politically-motivated investigation be conducted into Tymoshenko’s handling of a natural gas deal between Russia and Ukraine, leading to her arrest, incarceration and prosecution on baseless trumped-up political charges in 2011.
When an international storm of protest erupted, and with the U.S. government, the European Union and human rights groups calling for Tymoshenko’s immediate release, Manafort and Gates convinced the Ukraine government to hire the Skadden Arps firm to counter this adverse publicity and to lend an air of respectability to the government’s relentless and unfounded prosecution of Tymoshenko, who by this time was in urgent need of specialized surgery in Germany to relieve a painful back condition. However, the Yanukovich regime steadfastly refused to permit her to travel to Germany for the operation.
Manafort and Gates orchestrated the retention of the Skadden Arps team for the ridiculously low contract amount of $12,000 in order to keep the contract just below the threshold requirement under Ukraine law for the public bidding of all government contracts.
Since I was Ms. Tymoshenko’s U.S.-based attorney at the time, I helped her Ukraine-based legal team to calculate the actual legal fees and expenses that Alex Van Der Zwaan and the other members of the Skadden Arps team were incurring for their frequent trips to Kiev, where they stayed at expensive hotels and dined at expensive restaurants while they were being led around Ukraine by Manafort, Gates and their pro-Russian cronies as part of their so-called investigation. We estimated that the law firm must have been paid at least $1-2 million for its legal services in preparing their “whitewash” report, which unsurprisingly concluded that there was some legitimate basis for the Tymoshenko prosecution and that it was not (at least not completely) a political hit-job by Manafort, Gates and the Yanukovich Regime they were working for.
When we turned the results of our investigation into the missing $1-2 million in payments over to the FBI and Department of Justice prosecutors, they apparently incorporated this information into their larger money laundering and influence-peddling investigation of Manafort and Gates, which led to the recent charges that Manafort and Gates used an offshore account to “funnel $4 million to pay secretly for the report” supporting Tymoshenko’s conviction. The work was revealed in last year’s indictment of Manafort and Gates, in which prosecutors asserted that the two men lobbied members of Congress and their staffs about Ukraine, including the issue of whether Yanukovych had a legitimate basis for imprisoning and prosecuting his political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.
The pubic release of the charges against Van der Zwaan signals that the Special Counsel’s office has reached plea agreements with both Van der Zwaan and Rick Gates, and that both of them are cooperating with the continuing investigation into the both Manafort and Gates’ work for the pro-Russian Ukrainian President, as well as their continuing work for the pro-Russian Ukrainian political party even after Yanukovich was forced to flee Kiev for the safety of Moscow in March of 2014 during the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine.
The results of this investigation should answer the longstanding question as to why then-Candidate Trump hired Manafort and Gates to head up his Presidential Campaign in the summer of 2016, knowing how closely affiliated they were with pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. The recent charges and plea agreements should also substantially advance the ongoing Mueller investigation on many fronts, including the question of whether it was Trump himself who directed Manafort and Gates to water down the Ukrainian plank in the party platform at the Republican National Convention. This revision of the Republican platform eliminated the call for the U.S. to send defensive military equipment to the beleaguered Ukraine government, which was facing the annexation of Crimea and a Russian-incited rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
One thing is clear: there is much, much more to come from the Special Counsel’s office.