LONDON—The identity of the U.S. government’s star witness in a high-profile trial—who subsequently fell out of a fifth-story Moscow window—was compromised in the course of a pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign run by Natalia Veselnitskaya, according to leaked emails.
The Russian lawyer who took part in the infamous Trump Tower meeting with senior Trump campaign officials was part of a secretive campaign on American soil that—according to the emails—may also have involved contempt of court and the violation of lobbying laws. She already has been indicted by the Southern District of New York on obstruction of justice charges.
A cache of emails obtained by the Dossier Center, which is a Russian opposition organization based in London, exposes the depth of foreign asset entanglement in Trump’s America at the precise moment that the president’s dealings with Ukrainian officials threaten to pull the Department of Justice and State Department into an unseemly impeachment fight.
The leaked emails offer an unprecedented look into the cynical world of Russia’s remorseless influence campaign within the U.S. Veselnitskaya was representing a company called Prevezon, which was facing an American trial over a $230 million fraud that began in Russia and implicated the Russian authorities.
An American law firm that had been working for Prevezon at the direction of Veselnitskaya was barred from the case by an extremely rare writ of mandamus handed down by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals because of conflict of interest with a former client. Emails suggest BakerHostetler, a major U.S. law firm that has also worked for The Daily Beast and its parent company, IAC, continued to operate as a kind of shadow counsel in what would have been a clear breach of the court order.
Other emails suggest another court order was violated when the testimony given by a Russian witness leaked, endangering his life before he was due to return to New York to give evidence at the trial.
It was later reported in the Russian media that the witness—Nikolai Gorokhov—had fallen five floors from an apartment building in Moscow. He survived with a fractured skull. He said his fall was no accident, but could not remember exactly what happened.
Cristy Phillips, a former U.S. government prosecutor with the Southern District of New York (SDNY) who worked on the case, said she fears that the emails shared with The Daily Beast indicate deep corruption hidden within the American legal system.
“The integrity of our judicial system depends on lawyers upholding their obligations as officers of the court. Most fundamentally, if a court issues an order, lawyers have to follow it and make sure that others on their side follow it. There were numerous senior lawyers on these emails and they all clearly violated a Second Circuit court order. And these were not inexperienced lawyers, several of them are former Department of Justice attorneys,” she told The Daily Beast.
“We’re talking about a case where witnesses had died and other witnesses’ lives and safety had been threatened. These were not low-stakes decisions.”
The cache of emails that detail Veselnitskaya’s legal campaign and lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., were shared with The Daily Beast by the Dossier Center, which is funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Putin’s most prominent exiled critics.
The emails cannot be independently verified by The Daily Beast via a digital signature, but elements contained within them including cellphone numbers, bank details, planning, email addresses, and hearing dates can be confirmed by cross-checking with subsequent court papers, lobbyist filings, and other reporting.
Emails from the same leak led to an indictment against Veselnitskaya, who has known Kremlin links, that was filed by prosecutors from the SDNY earlier this year. U.S. government officials obtained the emails—first published by the Dossier Center and NBC News—that suggest that Veselnitskaya conspired directly with Russian officials to mislead an American court.
When Veselnitskaya was confronted with some of the Dossier Center emails on camera by NBC News, she confirmed that she recognized some of the documents. She later told Russia’s Interfax news agency that her emails had been hacked.
New emails from the same cache, which includes messages from and to Veselnitskaya and her aide and translator Murat Glashev, shed light on Veselnitskaya’s lobbying and legal campaign against the Magnitsky Act and appear to suggest that it may have been carried out in breach of another U.S. law and court orders.
Some of the emails suggest the breaking of an order put in place by a New York court to protect the identity of Gorokhov, a Russian witness who testified in a sealed deposition. His evidence was hidden amid fears of reprisals back home.
According to the Dossier Center leak, Veselnitskaya’s lawyer, Mark Cymrot, wrote a series of emails concerned that his Russian client may have allowed details of Gorokhov’s testimony to be passed on after she was granted access to the testimony under U.S. discovery laws—but only under tight restrictions.
The emails suggest Gorokhov’s secret deposition was leaked to Andrei Nekrasov, a Russian filmmaker who was making a pro-Kremlin movie against the Magnitsky Act at the time.
According to an email dated April 17, 2016, Cymrot says to Veselnitskaya: “[Nekrasov] was using part of Gorokhov’s deposition and separately he said we showed him non-public information… we are under court order to keep [Gorokhov’s] deposition and name confidential.”
Nekrasov told The Daily Beast that he does not have this material in his possession. “Neither Mark nor myself have done anything illegal, or just wrong, professionally or morally,” he said. “I do not recall anyone sharing any confidential material from that case with me.”
Cymrot did not answer detailed questions put to him by The Daily Beast.
Preet Bharara, who was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York at the time, was so concerned about Gorokhov’s safety that he submitted a letter to the judge under seal in October 2015, requesting additional measures to protect him. Bharara informed the court that “Mr. Gorokhov and his family are temporarily staying in the United States due to well-founded concerns that they could be endangered by individuals in Russia seeking to prevent Mr. Gorokhov from testifying.”
“It’s totally unacceptable that that information got out,” Phillips said. “It is on the record that the government took extraordinary measures to protect him. But at the end of the day, we could only protect him insofar as the defense respected the court order that said the information was highly confidential and should be shared with no one.” It is not suggested that any leaked information from the case led to Gorokhov’s fall.
The civil forfeiture case in question concerned allegations of money laundering by a company called Prevezon, which was accused by American prosecutors of disposing of some of the proceeds of a $230 million fraud in Russia. The defendant, Prevezon, eventually settled the case, agreeing to pay $5.9 million, which it has yet to disburse.
The alleged fraud took on major geopolitical significance after the lawyer who uncovered it, Sergei Magnitsky, died in Russian custody amid allegations that the Russian state and its criminal accomplices had tried to cover it up. The Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned the individuals involved, was named in his honor after former client and fraud victim Bill Browder, a U.S.-born hedge-fund CEO, launched a global campaign for justice.
The emails also reveal new details about Veselnitskaya’s efforts to have America’s Magnitsky sanctions overturned on behalf of Moscow. The sanctions in question were targeted against corrupt Russian officials by the Magnitsky Act, which had infuriated President Vladimir Putin.
In retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012, Putin banned American adoptions of Russian babies. It was supposedly to discuss the “adoption issue” that Veselnitskaya met in Trump Tower with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., and Paul Manafort, who was chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign at the time.
Overturning the Magnitsky Act was one of Putin’s top foreign-policy goals at the time, and spawned an extensive lobbying and public-relations effort.
Leaked emails between Veselnitskaya and her American lawyers raise a number of potential legal issues in their campaign.
BakerHostetler, a major firm that represents Major League Baseball and was briefly hired by House Republicans to sue President Barack Obama, never registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to cover the work for Veselnitskaya and Prevezon. FARA registration is required to operate on behalf of foreign principals and a leading lobbying expert said the emails appeared to show that Baker did provide strategic and communications advice to Veselnitskaya and her employer, Denis Katsyv, who owns Prevezon.
On May 30, 2016, an email suggests Cymrot wrote to Veselnitskaya to prepare for an upcoming congressional hearing at which she would give evidence. “Do you want us to prepare your written statement or at least the first draft? We also should prepare you for the questions.”
After the hearing, which took place in June 2016 during the trip to the United States when Veselnitskaya went to Trump Tower, Cymrot reached out again, according to a leaked email, to say that one of his colleagues had written a draft of Veselnitskaya’s supplementary evidence to the committee. According to a leaked email dated July 27, he followed up to say that he had made some edits personally, and could deliver the document to Congress on her behalf.
“Here you have multiple pieces of evidence that would seem to trigger registration under FARA,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reforms at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that scrutinizes campaign finance and ethics. “These emails and documents certainly raise serious questions about whether Cymrot and BakerHostetler violated FARA by failing to register.”
BakerHostetler declined to comment.
Another part of the lobbying effort included an attempt to recruit Sen. Jeff Sessions, according to the leaked emails. Sessions had become the first senior Republican to formally endorse Donald Trump in the presidential race in February 2016. He would go on to be named U.S. attorney general once Trump was elected.
Rinat Ahkmetshin, a former Soviet counterintelligence officer and Washington lobbyist, boasted that he had recruited the Alabama senator to launch an investigation into U.S. sanctions against Russia, according to a leaked email from Cymrot.
Akhmetshin reportedly was hired by Prevezon before he started to get paid by an ostensible human-rights NGO, which BakerHostetler and Akhmetshin helped to set up.
The leaked emails suggest Cymrot wrote to Veselnitskaya on April 17, 2016, to outline their progress: “Rinat has told us that Senator Jeff Sessions is willing to start an investigation into how the Magnitsky Law came about.”
After denying any 2016 contact with Russian officials during his attorney general confirmation hearing, Sessions admitted that he had failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador. His story about whether he discussed the election with Sergei Kislyak changed over the following months but even by October 2017—when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and confirmed his meetings with Kislyak—he was still adamant that he had not discussed the sanctions with anyone. “I don’t believe I’ve ever had any discussion at any time about the Magnitsky Act,” he said, under oath.
Sessions, who was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, never did publicly call for an investigation into the Magnitsky Act.
Sessions’ lawyer, Charles Cooper, told The Daily Beast that Sessions “has no recollection of the matters discussed in the emails that you referenced. Nor do any of the people who were the relevant members of his Senate staff in 2016. Neither he nor his Senate staff recall meeting any of the people referenced in the email you sent. And he certainly did not pursue any kind of hearings or other inquiry into the Magnitsky Act, which he cosponsored in 2011.”
Another arm of the pro-Kremlin lobbying effort was orchestrated by an ostensible NGO called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGIF).
At the end of April 2016, emails suggest a BakerHostetler invoice addressed to HRAGIF described professional services at a cost of $111,387.45, including issues relating to the Magnitsky list, which named the sanctioned individuals, for “review and markup materials regarding issues with Magnitsky Act” and “materials for Congressional committee.” It also included numerous line items on time spent discussing “lobbying registration requirements” and “review of… FARA requirements,” as well as drafting the “certificate of incorporation” to set up HRAGIF in the first place.
According to a leaked email dated July 14, 2016, Cymrot wrote to Veselnitskaya to explain the invoices. “Natalia: I am attaching the HRAGIF and Prevezon matter,” the email says. “It now contains 5 months of Baker time, which is largely support for the public relations effort.”
“It seems that the purpose in creating this nonprofit was to avoid registration under FARA, and they would not be the first law firm to try and use that tactic to avoid registration,” Fischer, from the Campaign Legal Center, told The Daily Beast. “That’s what Manafort did on behalf of the Ukrainian political party and it’s also what helped lead to the charges against him because the evidence showed—and he knew—that the beneficiary of his activities was actually the Ukrainian political party not this innocuously named sham nonprofit.”
Paul Manafort was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on a raft of charges that stemmed from the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in U.S. politics.
Before working with Veselnitskaya for Prevezon, BakerHostetler previously had been engaged by Browder, a major target of Veselnitskaya and the Kremlin. BakerHostetler’s John Moscow had signed up in September 2008 to help Browder bring a U.S. prosecution over the $230 million fraud even before Magnitsky was arrested in Russia. He met with the U.S. Department of Justice in December of that year to lay out the entire criminal enterprise.
Five years later, by the time the DOJ finally acted against the Russian fraud when the Southern District of New York filed a forfeiture and money-laundering claim against Prevezon in September 2013, BakerHostetler was about to effectively switch sides.
In October 2013, John Moscow appeared in court on behalf of Prevezon, having previously advised Browder’s Hermitage, the alleged victim of the fraud implicating Prevezon. Crossing over to fight for the other side in a legal battle is not allowed under U.S. law. Browder’s lawyers filed a complaint, which would ricochet through the courts for the next three years until the Second Circuit Court of Appeals eventually disqualified BakerHostetler from serving as counsel to Prevezon in October 2016.
When handing down the disqualification, the judge explained why BakerHostetler must not be allowed to represent Prevezon after working so closely with Browder, who was now being accused of wrongdoing. “The danger here is not limited to BakerHostetler overtly using confidences in the litigation. There is a risk that BakerHostetler, while not explicitly using confidences, may use such confidences to guide its defense of Prevezon in other ways.”
Emails apparently sent to and from lawyers at BakerHostetler, however, suggest that the law firm continued to serve Prevezon as a kind of shadow counsel even after the disqualification.
Once that ruling had been handed down, leaked emails indicate that in November 2016 Cymrot at BakerHostetler suggested an alternative lawyer who could be hired by Veselnitskaya to work for Prevezon. In an email sent five months later, Cymrot said BakerHostetler had still discussed the case “on a regular basis” and would continue to hold “team” meetings with the new counsel.
Despite being disqualified from taking part in the case, the emails suggest BakerHostetler helped draft the settlement with the U.S. government in May 2017 and even acted as a go-between, passing on messages and an invoice from the new lawyer, Mike Hess. Hess did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast. BakerHostetler was asked about this and other allegations, but did not respond.
A second new lawyer also joined the team. At the time, Faith Gay was working for Quinn Emanuel, the U.S. law firm that also replaced BakerHostetler in the Republican case against Obama when staff at Baker raised fears that the case was too heavily partisan.
Emails indicate that she also continued to work with the disqualified BakerHostetler firm. According to a leaked email dated May 1, 2017, she wrote to Veselnitskaya and her translator colleague Glashev, reassuring them that she was still working closely with BakerHostetler. “The judge removed Baker from the case. We have been trying to talk with them informally as much as possible.”
Gay declined to comment.
When faced with possible disclosure of emails later that year, one of Gay’s associates emailed Veselnitskaya on Aug. 16, 2017, raising concerns that, “Disclosure could also result in a question being raised about Baker representing Prevezon’s interests well beyond the district court’s disqualification of them as Prevezon’s counsel.”
The issue could be particularly sensitive because Prevezon’s defense effectively accused Browder of committing the fraud.
Former prosecutor Phillips said: “They violated the very essence of the order.”