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Attorney Alex van der Zwaan, first person sentenced in Mueller probe, gets 30 days in prison

"What I did was wrong. I apologize to the court, my wife and my family," he told the court before sentencing.
Image: Alex van der Zwaan raises his arms as he goes through security check point
Alex van der Zwaan going through security upon arriving at Federal District Court in Washington on April 3, 2018.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

WASHINGTON — A London-based lawyer who admitted to lying to special counsel Robert Mueller's team in November 2017 was ordered Tuesday to serve 30 days in prison, the first sentence imposed since Mueller was appointed nearly a year ago.

Alex van der Zwaan, 33, had pleaded guilty in February to making false statements when he was interviewed last fall about his phone calls and e-mails with a former Trump campaign aide, Richard Gates.

Van der Zwaan addressed the judge directly on Tuesday, saying in a brief statement: "What I did was wrong. I apologize to the court, my wife and my family."

The judge also fined the Belgian-born lawyer $20,000 and imposed two months of supervised release.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson said van der Zwaan's false statements were not an incidental mistake but a knowing lie during an investigation of international importance. She said she took into account that he is an attorney and should have known better.

Jackson said the sentence was intended to "reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law" and reduce sentencing disparities.

"This is not something that happened to him. This is something he did," she said. "He put is personal interests ahead of the interests of justice."

William Schwartz, a lawyer for van der Zwaan, urged the judge not to sentence him to prison time so he could return to London where his wife is in the midst of a difficult pregnancy and expecting their first child in August.

Prosecutors said van der Zwaan had lied to federal agents and covered it up, trying to destroy emails. They had asked that he be sentenced to some time behind bars as a "general deterrent" but did not make a specific recommendation on length.

The van der Zwaan case did not involve Mueller's central mission of examining potential help for Russian election meddling in 2016. Instead, it grew out of the investigation of Gates and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort over work they did in Ukraine more than a decade ago.

Prosecuting van der Zwaan was more likely intended to send a message that Mueller's team would move aggressively against anyone who tried to obstruct their investigation rather than to enlist van der Zwaan's help. The terms of his plea do not require him to cooperate with prosecutors.

Ty Cobb, President Donald Trump's lawyer who handles the Russia matter, declined Tuesday to comment on the van der Zwaan sentencing.

As a lawyer in an international law firm, van der Zwaan worked with Gates and Manafort for a Ukrainian political party closely aligned with Russia. The law firm, Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom, was hired by the government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2012 to examine the prosecution of one of his former political rivals.

The firm's work was supposed to be independent of the lobbying by Manafort and Gates, but van der Zwaan leaked a copy of the report and talking points to Gates and lied about later conversations in 2016 with Gates about how the firm was paid and potential criminal charges against the firm in Ukraine.

Mueller's team has separately charged Gates and Manafort with illegally hiding millions of dollars they earned doing work in Ukraine. Gates has pleaded guilty but no sentencing date has been set; Manafort faces trial in early July.

Van der Zwaan's lawyers had noted that two weeks after making the false statements, he returned to the U.S. to meet with Mueller's team again to correct the record. When he had lied the first time, they said, he was not trying to impede the investigation but instead wanted to prevent his law firm from discovering he had misled his supervisors about his contact with Gates.

Before pronouncing sentence, Jackson said van der Zwaan's "expressions of remorse were muted," noting that while some members of his family wrote to the judge to urge leniency, he did not. Nor, the judge said, did he make any effort to preform community service while in the U.S. awaiting sentencing.

Van der Zwaan's father-in-law, German Khan, is a prominent Russian billionaire.