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‘No Slam Dunk’

Trump's Latest Russia Conspiracy Busted—Why the Feds Settled the Prevezon Case

The big Russia case involving the lawyer who met Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower that prosecutors settled just after Preet Bharara was fired? That wasn’t a Washington call.

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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Despite the various conspiracy theories being floated now by both President Donald Trump and his Democratic foes, the politically charged, Russian-linked Prevezon financial case was settled by federal prosecutors in New York, on their own, because they felt there was a decent chance they might lose in court or win a pyrrhic victory.

The case involved $14 million to buy four luxury apartments and two high-end commercial spaces in lower Manhattan with some of that money allegedly laundered from an audacious $230 million Russian tax scam. Acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District, Joon Kim, did not consult with Attorney General Jeff Sessions before deciding to settle the case because it was “no slam dunk,” according to a federal law enforcement official and two other people with knowledge of the case and its settlement.

“This settlement did not require DOJ approval,” the official said.

Two months later, it’s the subject of intense scrutiny after the news that Donald Trump Jr. agreed to a meeting at Trump Tower last June with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who promised to provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton—and whose clients include millionaire Denis Katsyv, the politically wired owner of Prevezon.

Also at that meeting, The Daily Beast reported Friday, was Veselnitskaya’s interpreter during the Prevezon case, Anatoli Samochornov, who was viewed with suspicion by American officials in part because he also worked for her nonprofit group dedicated to overturning the so-called Magnitsky Act—named for the Russian lawyer who was jailed, tortured to death, and then convicted after his murder of tax fraud for uncovering the $230 million tax scheme—that bars a list of Russian oligarchs from the United States and its banking system.

The Prevezon case was initiated by the SDNY, sometimes nicknamed the sovereign district, while it was led by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who alleged that $600,000 of $14 million spent on the Pine Street real estate had come from that big con, after being laundered through multiple shell companies. In effect, Bharara grabbed the $600,000 toe of the $230 million Russian tiger to drag it into the American justice system.  

The decision by Bharara’s successor, Kim, to accept a settlement of $5.9 million was spun as a win by both sides when it was announced in May. That was just two days before the case was due to go to trial and one month after Kim took over the SDNY following President Trump’s surprise decision to fire Bharara, along with 43 other U.S. attorneys held over from the Obama administration.

The SDNY has avoided public discussion of the case since announcing the settlement, at least in part out of concerns that explaining their reasons would appear to politicize it. Multiple people familiar with it, though, have continued to offer the same reasons for taking the deal they did just after it was first reached, and expressed frustration that “the news is now painting this as a political settlement, somehow related to Preet’s firing.”

Politicians, too, have been painting that picture. The Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a rather Trumpian people-are-saying letter to Sessions last week, strongly suggesting that the Trump Tower meeting and the settlement were linked and demanding the attorney general explain and document why he let Prevezon off the hook. President Trump, appearing to rely on a Drudge Report banner summarizing a misleading story in The Hill, then claimed that Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch had personally allowed Veselnitskaya to be in the United States for her meeting with his son.

The case for the SDNY’s decision to settle:

This was so complicated there was a real risk of the jury not understanding what was going on. The fraud prosecutors would have to prove would be primarily shown in documents, translated from Russian. There was a real risk of losing the jury.

More, there were serious concerns about witness safety and willingness to testify, especially after an investigator, Nikolai Gorokhov, who’d picked up the trial after Magnitsky’s murder, was thrown out of the window of his apartment last year and nearly killed. That was about a year after American prosecutors told a judge of their “strong concerns that… individuals in Russia could attempt to threaten or harm Mr. Gorokhov and his family in an attempt to keep Mr. Gorokhov from testifying at trial.” Russian media reported at the time of his near-fatal fall that he fell by accident, while trying to winch a bathtub up to his fourth-story apartment. Hm.

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Still more, a loss in an American court would have set back the attempts of the victims of the Russian tax fraud to win other court cases both here and abroad. And while the SDNY had sued to claim all of the condos, and a jury could have easily rejected that, since only a fraction of their purchase price came from money connected to the tax fraud. So prosecutors could have ended up winning but recovering a lesser amount—and being held responsible for a share of the other side’s astronomical attorney fees so that they would be paying the people they’d just bested in the court.

Add it up, and with just $600,000 of shady money in the government’s case against a $6 million settlement offer, plus concerns about both the safety and the perceived credibility of witnesses after a years-long campaign of threats and smears aimed at them, plus the risk of losing the jury, plus the risk of winning the trial and losing the settlement, and the SDNY signed off on the deal.

Already, prosecutors had been helping Veselnitskaya, by giving her immigration parole to stay in the country to defend her client. That authorization ran out last January—months before her Trump Tower meeting.

“The only thing I can say is that her immigration parole had expired,” said the official. “She sought to renew it for the appeal” of the Prevezon case prior to its settlement, which involved whether a lawyer who’d represented the company had a conflict of interest.

Prevezon was represented at that appeal by Michael Mukasey, the former U.S. attorney general whose son, Marc, has been rumored as a potential replacement for Bharara in the Southern District.

(As if this wasn’t complicated enough: Michael Mukasey is also currently working along with Marc’s law partner, Rudy Giuliani, for Reza Zarrab, the Turk close with that country’s leadership charged by Bharara with busting Iran sanctions. The pair have told the judge in that case that they were retained to find an extrajudicial resolution—presumably meaning a deal between the Trump administration and Turkey—to get their client off the hook.)

“The SDNY refused when Veselnitskaya wanted that renewal” last January, the official said. “At the time she met with Donald Trump, Jr., she was not here on its authority.”

The SDNY also tried to use its authority to remove her translator, Samochornov, who later accompanied her to the Trump Tower meeting, from the Prevezon case, telling the judge that he was “really a member of the defense team,” given his work for Veselnitskaya’s anti-Magnitsky Act group and his habit of arguing with SDNY interpreters during depositions.

“They were serious about it,” said the official, though a judge denied that request, since Samochornov, who’s also worked for the FBI and State Department as an interpreter, is certified by the district.