By STEPHEN BRAUN
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. last year had drawn attention from U.S. government officials even before that now-famous encounter for her work fighting U.S. sanctions that had angered the Kremlin.
At one point, officials tried to seize emails from the attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and deny her entry into the U.S., according to government and legal documents.
The scrutiny focused on Veselnitskaya’s ties to Prevezon Holdings Ltd. and its owner, who is the son of a former Russian government official and a fierce advocate for rolling back some of the U.S. sanctions.
Her work underscores the blurry lines in Russia between the government and businesses, deepening the questions about her and the June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump associates.
At the time of the meeting in Trump Tower, Veselnitskaya was helping defend Prevezon against charges it had engaged in money laundering from a $230 million Russian tax fraud scheme.
The fraud was exposed by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer whose death in jail in 2009 prompted U.S. lawmakers to enact a law named for him that imposed travel and financial sanctions against Russians believed to be involved in his death. The sanctions angered President Vladimir Putin because they targeted not only rank-and-file investigators and judges but eventually affected close allies like Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Russian Investigative Committee.
Veselnitskaya also was working with a group of lobbyists trying to weaken the Magnitsky Act. The $300,000 campaign partly financed by Denis Katsyv, Prevezon’s owner and a client of Veselnitskaya’s.
Trump Jr. has said Veselnitskaya spent much of their meeting discussing the Magnitsky Act and one of its repercussions — Russia blocking U.S. adoptions — despite the fact the session was billed as an opportunity to discuss potentially incriminating information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. According to emails released by Trump Jr., he was told by an associate that the promised information was part of the Russian government’s efforts to help his father win the White House.
Veselnitskaya’s work history could become fodder for federal and congressional investigators probing whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to meddle in the election. Veselnitskaya has denied having ties to the Kremlin, and President Donald Trump has denied any coordination with Moscow.
Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist and former Soviet military official, described Veselnitskaya to The Associated Press as a “very emotional person and a great patriot of Russia.” He said he saw no evidence of any direct ties between her and the Russian government.
“She’s a hard-working person, very loyal to her clients,” said Akhmetshin, who confirmed to AP on Friday that he also attended the Trump Tower meeting.
Despite Russian denials about her working for the government, Veselnitskaya’s efforts against the Magnitsky Act would have been beneficial to the Kremlin, given how the law affected its judges, investigators and associates of Putin.
Akhmetshin said Veselnitskaya coordinated frequently with him and others last year in lobbying against the sanctions law. U.S. proponents of the law said the lobbying campaign was also directed at weakening or defeating a proposed expansion of the original measure that authorized the president to sanction individuals, companies or governments complicit in human rights violations and corruption.
That bill passed in December and was signed by President Barack Obama.
As Veselnitskaya was both defending Prevezon and working for its owner’s anti-sanctions campaign, U.S. officials began scrutinizing her actions and communications.
Preet Bharara, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, questioned Veselnitskaya for billing the government $2,000 for a two-day stay at New York’s lavish Plaza Hotel during depositions of several Prevezon defendants, including Katsyv.
“Ms. Veselnitskaya appears to have stayed at a less expensive hotel during the depositions, but moved to the Plaza after the depositions concluded, and only after the Court orally stated that the government would be responsible for reimbursing defendants’ expenses,” Bharara said in a letter to the trial judge. Bharara was ousted by the new administration in March.
Prosecutors also tried to use a grand jury subpoena to learn more about Veselnitskaya’s communications with another Russian lawyer for Prevezon. Prosecutors said that lawyer, Andrey Pavlov, filed sham lawsuits against investors in Russian companies and associates with members of a Russian organized crime group described as “a shadowy criminal syndicate — identified only as ‘the Organization.'”
The documents do not explain why prosecutors sought Veselnitskaya’s communications with Pavlov or detail whether any correspondence was turned over to federal authorities. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which prosecuted the case, declined comment.
In a declaration she filed in the case in January 2016, Veselnitskaya complained she had “been harassed by the (U.S.) government” despite being given temporary permission to work in New York on the Prevezon case. She said she was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport on a return trip from the U.S. and “unjustifiably” subjected to a strip search.
A federal prosecutor explained in a hearing that U.S. immigration officials had repeatedly denied her entry, but did not explain the reasons. The Justice Department finally allowed Veselnitskaya to temporarily perform legal work in the U.S. under “immigration parole,” a special visa requiring approval from the U.S. attorney general.
Trump used that visa clearance to defend his son’s meeting with Veselnitskaya, saying then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch had approved her entry to the U.S. Lynch has said she has no knowledge of Veselnitskaya’s travel.
Veselnitskaya has cast her work in the U.S. last year as a success. In May, the Justice Department settled its case, with Prevezon paying $6 million in fines but admitting no guilt.