Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Mueller’s Latest Plea Deal Puts Pressure on Paul Manafort

On Tuesday, Alex Van Der Zwaan, a lawyer who helped produce a report at Manafort’s behest, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Alex Van Der Zwaan, a former attorney at an international law firm, pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about the last time he communicated with Paul Manafort’s longtime business partner, Rick Gates. Van Der Zwaan is the latest figure swept up in Robert Mueller’s expansive probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to admit to the charges against him.

Mueller’s interest in Van Der Zwaan, who helped produce a report about a contentious trial in Ukraine at Manafort’s behest, may be a signal that the special counsel is ramping up pressure on Manafort—whose connections to Russia and high-level role on the Trump campaign could prove invaluable to Mueller’s probe.

Gates is reportedly nearing his own plea deal with Mueller, according to the Los Angeles Times, but Manafort has continued to fight the charges he faces. His uphill battle to prove his innocence, however, will get steeper with Van Der Zwaan’s guilty plea.

“Manafort is looking at 10 years in prison and is approaching 70 years of age,” said the former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer, now managing director at Berkley Research Group. “I don’t think he wants to risk spending that time in Cellblock D. The next inquiry is what, if anything, does Manafort know with respect to the Russian contacts with the Trump transition team or administration.”

William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the Justice Department, agreed. “Mueller wants to put enough pressure on Manafort by making his conviction appear unavoidable to convince him to plead and cooperate,” Yeomans told me. “Manafort, doubtless, has a great deal to offer regarding the campaign’s contacts with Russia.”

Manafort’s spokesman declined to comment.

The special counsel has already charged both Manafort and Gates with several financial crimes. According to an October indictment, Manafort laundered the money he was paid by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions into the U.S. using an extensive network of offshore bank accounts.

In 2012, Manafort hired Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom, an international law firm, to write a report aimed at determining whether the 2011 trial of Yanukovych’s political rival Yulia Tymoshenko on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power met international legal standards. The firm sent an intermediary, Van Der Zwaan, the Dutch son-in-law of Russian-Ukrainian oligarch German Khan, to Ukraine in 2012 to investigate, according to the Kyiv Post.

That trial was decried as politically motivated by several international observers, including the European Union, but Skadden’s report deemed it fair. Former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland condemned the report at the time, calling it “incomplete” and claiming that Skadden’s lawyers “were obviously not going to find political motivation if they weren’t looking for it.”

The Yanukovych government’s payments to Skadden, like its payments to Manafort for his consulting and lobbying work, have come under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department. In June 2017, Skadden returned over $500,000 to the Ukrainian government amid allegations that the money it received from Ukraine’s former Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych as payment for the Tymoshenko investigation had been transferred out of government coffers illegally. The reimbursement caught the eye of the Justice Department, which asked Skadden in September for more information about its work for Yanukovych in 2012.

One month later, Mueller’s team accused Manafort and Gates of using “one of their offshore accounts to funnel $4 million to pay secretly” for the 300-page Tymoshenko report. Manafort has denied all of the charges, but  Skadden could shed more light on the extent to which Manafort was involved in hiring and paying the firm on Yanukovych’s behalf.

Van Der Zwaan’s father-in-law, Khan, owns Russia’s Alfa Bank along with Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven. The three billionaires sued BuzzFeed News last year over its decision to publish a dossier written by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele that alleged, among other things, Alfa Bank’s involvement in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Skadden has represented Alfa in several disputes over the years, according to descriptions of attorneys’ work available on its website. Manafort’s daughter, Andrea, was hired as an associate at Skadden in October 2012—one month after the firm completed the Tymoshenko report. She left Skadden in October 2016, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Prosecutors say Van Der Zwaan told the FBI in November, “in the course of answering questions concerning his work as an attorney employed by” Skadden, that his last communication with Gates was in mid-August 2016 and his last communication with an individual identified only as “Person A” was in 2014. Van Der Zwaan also told the FBI that he didn’t know why an email he exchanged with “Person A” in September 2016 was not provided to the special counsel’s office.

In fact, Van Der Zwaan spoke with both Gates and Person A regarding the Tymoshenko report in September 216 and recorded the calls, according to Mueller’s team. He also deleted emails sought by both the special counsel’s office and Skadden, including the one between him and Person A in September 2016.

Skadden, for its part, is distancing itself from Van Der Zwaan. In a statement on Tuesday, the firm said it “terminated its employment of Alex Van Der Zwaan in 2017 and has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter.”