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story.lead_photo.caption In this April 22, 2018 file photo, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Moscow. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov, File)

NEW YORK -- The Russian lawyer who attended the Trump Tower meeting that is a focus of the special counsel's investigation into possible collusion was charged with obstructing an unrelated tax-fraud case, federal prosecutors in New York said Tuesday.

Natalya Veselnitskaya was indicted on one count of obstruction of justice after, prosecutors said, she teamed up with a senior Russian prosecutor and submitted deceptive declarations in a civil proceeding involving a Russian tax refund fraud scheme.

The indictment, which is unrelated to Russian election interference and brought by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, illustrates Veselnitskaya's close ties to the Russian government, which she has denied. And it renews questions about the circumstances of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which also was attended by Donald Trump Jr. and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Trump Jr. said he had been told she could offer damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. But Trump Jr. and Kushner said the meeting amounted to nothing and mostly involved Russia's ban on American adoptions in response to U.S. sanctions.

Veselnitskaya, who did not respond to inquiries, has previously denied acting on behalf of Russian officials when she met with the Trump team, telling Congress that she operates "independently of any government bodies."

Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the presidential campaign, has focused on the Trump Tower meeting and called some participants before a federal grand jury. He also has scrutinized Trump's role in drafting a misleading public statement about the meeting's content.

James Margolin, a spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office, said Veselnitskaya's criminal case did not originate from a referral by Mueller. Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller's office, declined comment on the case.

Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., and she will likely never appear in a U.S. court if she remains there.

The indictment was filed under seal in December and publicly announced Tuesday by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman.

The criminal case relates to real estate firm Prevezon Holdings Ltd. and its role in an alleged $230 million tax-fraud scheme that federal officials say was "perpetrated by a criminal organization that included in its ranks corrupt Russian officials."

In 2013, U.S. prosecutors brought a civil lawsuit against the company that sought to recover millions of dollars worth of New York real estate and other property on the grounds that it was tainted by money laundering. The fraud scheme involved using stolen corporate identities to obtain Russian tax refunds and funneling the illegal proceeds through a network of shell companies.

Veselnitskaya was retained to assist the defendants. As part of that representation, the indictment accuses her of misrepresenting a declaration that she submitted to a federal judge.

Prevezon settled the civil case in 2017.

The companies that claimed they had been defrauded by Prevezon were owned by Hermitage Capital Management, whose CEO William Browder aided the government's case. Browder has championed sanctions against Russia, accusing its officials of collaborating in the imprisonment that led to the death of his Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky was arrested while investigating the fraud case and died in a Russian prison in 2009. Congress passed the Magnitsky Law in 2012 to target those allegedly involved in his arrest and death with financial sanctions.

Veselnitskaya's legal work for Prevezon is also connected to another Trump Tower meeting participant, Rinat Akhmetshin.

Prevezon owner Denis Katsyv helped fund a lobbying effort carried out by Akhmetshin that sought to poke holes in Magnitsky's story. Akhmetshin, a former Russian military officer and Washington lobbyist, later accompanied Veselnitskaya to the Trump Tower meeting.

Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin spoke with U.S. Rep. French Hill in April 2016 after a public roundtable discussion he had attended in Moscow.

The Republican from Little Rock was traveling as part of a congressional delegation at the time.

Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin "said that if people were willing to change the name of that [Magnitsky] act that perhaps [U.S.-]Russian adoptions could go forward again," Hill told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in July, 2017, after the encounter was reported by Politico.

After the meeting, Hill said, "I took that information and turned it over to the House Foreign Affairs [Committee] staff and the embassy staff in Moscow and let them assess whether it was of any value."

The trip to Russia didn't satisfy Hill's concerns about the Kremlin's leadership.

Shortly after the trip, he posted a letter online stating: "I am not optimistic Mr. Putin is willing to be a good partner of America."

Hill subsequently supported tougher sanctions on Russia.

Information for this article was contributed by Larry Neumeister, Chad Day, Stephen Braun and Jim Heintz of The Associated Press; and by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 01/09/2019

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