By Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld
(Reuters) - A Russian lawyer who attended a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower under scrutiny in the U.S. special counsel's probe of Russian election meddling was charged in an unrelated case that U.S. prosecutors said showed evidence of her ties to the Kremlin.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, who represented Russian defendants in a money laundering case settled in 2017, was charged with obstructing justice in that case for submitting a declaration that she falsely represented came from the Russian government independently, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Veselnitskaya "participated in drafting those supposed exculpatory investigative findings in secret cooperation with a senior Russian prosecutor," the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan said in a statement.
Veselnitskaya emerged as a critical figure in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign because of her meeting with Trump campaign aides in New York in the run-up to the election. Moscow denies interfering in the election to help Trump.
James Margolin, a spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, said the charges were not based on a referral from Mueller's office, which declined to comment on the indictment, and were unrelated to the Trump Tower meeting.
Veselnitskaya, who is believed to be in Russia, could not be immediately reached for comment. In 2017 she said she was ready to testify before Congress to dispel what she called "mass hysteria" about her encounter with Trump campaign aides.
Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, has said he agreed to the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower after being promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton, Trump's Democratic opponent. Trump's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and top campaign aide Paul Manafort also attended.
If she remains in Russia, Veselnitskaya cannot be compelled to face the charges, suggesting any effort to get her to cooperate will prove difficult.
"They've charged her," said New York lawyer Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as independent counsel examining President Bill Clinton. "Whether or not they can reel her in is another question."
But the indictment could nevertheless prove significant for solidifying the notion that she was an agent of the Kremlin at the same time she was at the meeting with Trump campaign aides, some former federal prosecutors said.
On the same day as the Trump Tower meeting, Veselnitskaya attended oral arguments at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the U.S. government's forfeiture case against a Russian-controlled real estate holding company Prevezon Holdings Ltd, which U.S. prosecutors accused of laundering some of the proceeds of a $230 million Russian tax fraud scheme.
Prevezon Holdings Ltd agreed to pay nearly $6 million to settle the case in 2017.
The indictment says that in that case Veselnitskaya submitted to the court purported independent findings from senior Russian prosecutors seeking to divert blame from her client that she had in fact helped draft herself.
"It makes that meeting seem all the more nefarious," said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. "It is one more piece to suggest she is acting on behalf of the Russian government."
President Trump has denied having prior knowledge of the meeting. Trump has also denied colluding with Russia to influence the election and calls the Mueller investigation a political witch hunt.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Grant McCool)