Attorney pleads guilty in Mueller probe to lying to FBI over contacts with former Trump campaign official

  • Alex van der Zwaan admitted making false or misleading statements regarding email communications with Richard Gates.
  • His former employer, the renowned law firm Skadden, Arps, says they are cooperating with authorities.
  • Van der Zwaan is married to the daughter of German Khan, a Russian oligarch who is suing research firm Fusion GPS over a dossier alleging salacious and unverified ties between President Donald Trump and Russia.

An attorney who is the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch and is a former associate at top law firm Skadden, Arps, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to lying to federal authorities investigating alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Alex van der Zwaan, 33, admitted making false or misleading statements regarding email communications with Richard Gates, a former Trump campaign official and an associate of onetime Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort.

The statements related to work that van der Zwaan performed as a London-based lawyer at Skadden, Arps, on a report that sought to justify the incarceration of a political opponent of Manafort's client, then-Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych.

Alex van der Zwaan arrives at Federal District Court in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.
Susan Walsh | AP
Alex van der Zwaan arrives at Federal District Court in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.

A prosecutor said van der Zwaan, who is a Dutch national, worked closely with Gates and another person who is based in Ukraine on that report.

Van der Zwaan entered his guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Judge Amy Jackson agreed to sentence van der Zwaan on an expedited basis because his wife, Eva Khan, is pregnant and living in London.

Eva Khan, an art critic who married van der Zwaan last year, is due to deliver their child in August. She is the daughter of German Khan, a Russian oligarch who is suing research firm Fusion GPS over a dossier alleging salacious and unverified ties between President Donald Trump and Russia. The private intelligence-gathering firm's now-infamous dossier was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.

Khan and two other Russian investors in the financial institution Alfa Bank filed a libel suit against the firm last fall, claiming the dossier damaged their reputations.

Van der Zwaan faces a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

But given his background and his cooperation with Mueller's probe, van der Zwaan is more likely to be sentenced to six months or less, with possibly no jail time at all, and anywhere from a $500 to $9,500 fine.

The FBI is holding van der Zwaan's passport. For now, his travel is limited to within Washington, but he will be allowed to travel to New York on two days' notice.

The charges were levied on the same day the special counsel announced a surprise indictment against 13 Russian individuals and three entities alleged to have waged a campaign of "information warfare" against the U.S. in the 2016 presidential election.

Skadden, in a statement to CNBC, said, "The firm terminated its employment of Alex van der Zwaan in 2017 and has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter."

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Manafort's daughter, Andrea Manafort Shand, is also a former employee of Skadden.

Both Gates and Paul Manafort had previously been criminally charged by special counsel Robert Mueller's office on 12 counts, including alleged money laundering and making misleading statements about finances and past work.

Gates may be close to a guilty plea for charges relating to fraud, and may be willing to testify against Manafort, multiple outlets have reported.

The charges

The criminal information filed last week from the special counsel's office accused van der Zwaan of "knowingly" making "materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements" regarding his work helping to prepare a report in 2012 for Skadden, Arps, on the trial of Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko. Those statements were made Nov. 3, during an interview with investigators from Mueller's office as well as to FBI agents.

Van der Zwaan admitted lying about his last communication with Gates in mid-August 2016, "which consisted of an innocuous text message," and his last communication with an individual identified only as "Person A" in 2014. The information says van der Zwaan and Person A "discussed Person A's family."

Mueller's office on Tuesday in court identified "Person A" as a colleague of Manafort and Gates who is primarily based in Ukraine.

Van der Zwaan also admitted lying when he said, "he did not know why an email between him and Person A in September 2016 was not produced to the Special Counsel's Office."

The information also charged that in September 2016, van der Zwaan had spoken "with both Gates and Person A regarding the Report" on Tymoshenko, and surreptitiously recorded the calls.

Van der Zwaan also "deleted and otherwise did not produce emails sought the Special Counsel's Office and Law Firm A, including the email between Person A and him in September 2016."

Skadden, Arps, and van der Zwaan

The New York Times in September detailed how Manafort in 2011 had arranged for Skadden, Arps to prepare a report that was used by associates of Ukraine's Yanukovych to defend the incarceration of Ukrainian nationalist Tymoshenko.

That story noted that Mueller's office had asked the law firm for information and documents about its work for the pro-Russia Yanukovych.

And it also pointed out that Skadden, Arps last June had refunded $567,000 to the Ukrainian government, which was around half of what the firm reportedly had been paid for its work.

The Kyiv Post in November published a story revealing that van der Zwaan had traveled to the Ukraine to work on that report.

According to that report, Skadden claimed that the money was being held in "escrow for future work," though the Post said "the transfer only came after the Ukrainian government sent the U.S. Justice Department a letter requesting the repayment."

Van der Zwaan's now-deleted biography on Skadden's site notes this work for clients including Ukraine's Ministry of Justice, a Ukrainian billionaire named Gennadiy Bogolyubov, and a firm in the United Kingdom that was involved in a dispute relate to a Ukrainian mine.

Asked about the charges against van der Zwaan, White House spokesman Raj Shah said, "This announcement, along with Friday's, furthers our point that there's no evidence of collusion, as the President has long been stating."

"There's nothing in this announcement which would alter that," Shah said.

Asked if the White House is worried about the possibility that Gates would agree to cooperate with Mueller's probe, Shah said "I have nothing on that."

CNBC's Stephanie Dhue, Eamon Javers and Mary Catherine Wellons contributed to this report.

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