New York (AFP) - The Russian lawyer whose participation in a June 2016 meeting with top officials of President Donald Trump's election campaign has given rise to allegations of collusion has been indicted in a separate money laundering case, US prosecutors said Tuesday.
Natalya Veselnitskaya was charged with fabricating evidence in a 2013 case the US filed against the Russian firm Prevezon Holdings, which was allegedly involved in a $230 million tax refund fraud scheme in Moscow.
The scheme was exposed by crusading lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by Russian authorities and died in prison in 2009 after he was allegedly denied adequate care for severe health conditions.
Veselnitskaya "is now a wanted person in the United States for intentionally misleading US investigators," said Homeland Security investigator Angel Melendez.
The charge was, at least on the surface, unrelated to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.
Mueller has focused on the June 9, 2016 meeting, in which Veselnitskaya allegedly offered the Trump campaign dirt on his election rival Hillary Clinton.
The meeting included campaign chair Paul Manafort, Trump's son Donald Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
All have since said that Veselnitskaya had nothing on Clinton for them and sought to discuss other matters. She has denied meddling in election issues.
But Mueller is also reportedly examining whether Trump and his aides obstructed justice in an effort to hide details of the meeting from investigators.
- Laundering through NY real estate -
Veselnitskaya helped represent Prevezon in the case, in which the company was alleged to have laundered $14 million in proceeds of the Moscow tax refund scam through New York real estate.
Prosecutors alleged that Prevezon, controlled by Moscow tycoon Denis Katsyv, was a front for "Russian criminal organizations" with high-level political support.
They sought to seize $14 million in Prevezon assets in the United States.
In May 2017, just a few months after Trump became president, the newly promoted New York district attorney suddenly settled with Prevezon for $6 million, days before the trial opened.
Democrats at the time questioned whether the Prevezon settlement and Veselnitskaya's contacts with the Trump campaign were related.
In Tuesday's indictment, the Justice Department said that, in the Prevezon case, Veselnitskaya had submitted ostensibly independent investigative findings that cleared Prevezon and its clients.
In fact, US prosecutors said, the Russian lawyer participated in drafting the findings secretly together with a Russian prosecutor.
- Magnitsky cause celebre -
Magnitsky's imprisonment and death after he exposed the tax fraud case became a global human rights cause celebre and a challenge to the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In 2012, the US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which aimed to punish Russian officials involved in Magnitsky's imprisonment and death and the coverup around it.
In retaliation, Moscow imposed its own sanctions on US officials and halted American adoptions of Russian children.
Veselnitskaya has always maintained that her reason for pursuing the Trump Tower meeting with campaign officials was to discuss the adoption issue.
- Veselnitskaya: 'sensitive issues' -
In Russia, Veselnitskaya told Rossiya 24 television on Tuesday that she only learned of the indictment from the media.
"I assume that this aims to prevent me from pursuing my professional activities, which involve very sensitive issues for the United States," she said.
"It involves the Magnitsky Act, the corruption of justice and the Congress, issues which we can address in our work, based on evidence.
"I can only consider this as an attempt to prevent these things from becoming public."