Dark Money Investigations: News

UK law firm used by Putin ally hired solicitor jailed in Trump-Russia probe

Lawyer convicted in US probe into Russian election meddling was hired by UK firm that represented warlord Prigozhin

Jim Fitzpatrick square
Jim Fitzpatrick
23 February 2023, 6.00pm

Alex van der Zwaan leaves after a plea agreement hearing at the D.C. federal courthouse in Washington, U.S., February 20, 2018.


REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The London law firm under investigation for representing a Russian warlord hired a solicitor fresh from serving a US jail term for lying in the infamous Trump-Russia investigation.

Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch solicitor who had been working in the UK, was the first person to go to jail in US special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election that put Donald Trump into the White House.

Van der Zwaan, 38, had no connection to any election interference, but had worked on a report commissioned by Ukraine’s former pro-Putin government and lied to investigators about his contact with other individuals under scrutiny.

Weeks after lying to the FBI, in 2017 van der Zwaan was sacked from a UK legal firm, where he’d worked for over a decade, for gross misconduct connected to the US case.

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He was later prosecuted in Washington, DC, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a fine of $20,000 in April 2018. He was deported to the Netherlands after serving his jail time.

But two months later, van der Zwaan was back working in the UK – this time for Discreet Law, the firm that later represented Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in his legal attack on British journalist Eliot Higgins of investigative website Bellingcat.

Discreet Law did not break any rules by hiring him and the US case would not have been a bar to his employment in the UK.

Van der Zwaan – whose father-in-law is sanctioned Russian billionaire German Khan – formally notified the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which regulates solicitors in England and Wales, of his US conviction in July 2018.

The case was sent to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and he was struck off and banned from practising in the UK in June 2019.

But during most of that period, from July 2018 to May 2019, van der Zwaan remained employed by Discreet Law, which is now itself under SRA scrutiny for its conduct in the libel case it took on behalf of Prigozhin.

Van der Zwaan was pardoned by Trump in December 2020, weeks before the then-president left office. The pardoning did not affect his ban on practising as a solicitor in the UK. Today, van der Zwaan is the director of a UK consultancy firm, Cygnus Strategies LLP.

Speaking to openDemocracy, van der Zwaan said that during the ten months he was at Discreet Law he remained a fully qualified solicitor but was employed only as a legal assistant and all his work was supervised.

“My work focused solely on matters for Ukrainian clients which I had introduced to the firm. Due to ethical walls, I was not made aware of the identity of any of the other clients of the firm,” he said.

“I reported myself to the SRA and had hoped for a different outcome. I believed there were mitigating factors that would have allowed me to continue to practise, however that was not to be.”

Van der Zwaan also said he left Discreet Law of his own accord before the tribunal ruling and that Cygnus Strategies is a consultancy firm, at which he is the principal partner. Its website says it “focuses on assisting high net worth individuals, their families and structures associated with their family navigate a complex international landscape with confidence”.

“We don’t offer any legal advice, but help clients find the professional advice they need,” said van der Zwaan.

He also distanced himself from the Prigozhin case, which has brought Discreet Law under scrutiny and which occurred two years after he left the firm.

“I believe all individuals, even sanctioned ones, have a right to legal representation,” van der Zwaan said. “I do not have a good enough grasp of the facts of the case brought by Prigozhin against Eliot Higgins to comment specifically, but my opinion is that the law requires reform in this area in order to afford bona fide journalists the protection they deserve.”

openDemocracy’s investigation into how Prigozhin had obtained permission from the UK government to hire Discreet Law for his lawsuit against Higgins provoked outrage in Parliament last month.

Licences granted by a department of the Treasury allowed the sanctioned warlord to pay the firm from his funds in Russia and even fly its lawyers business class to meet him in St Petersburg to prepare his case. The case collapsed last March, leaving Higgins with a £100,000 legal bill.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy told Parliament the case was “a perfect example of a SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation, designed to silence critics through financial intimidation.”

The solicitor who defended Higgins in the case taken by Prigozhin has since called for Discreet Law to be struck off.

openDemocracy asked Discreet Law why it had employed van der Zwaan when his criminal conviction was a matter of public record. The firm did not respond to that question but said, in relation to the Prigozhin case, it had always followed the rules.

“It is public knowledge that Discreet Law LLP acted for Mr Prigozhin and our position is that at all times we complied fully with our legal and professional obligations. We do not consider it appropriate to comment further while there are ongoing SRA enquiries,” it said in a statement to openDemocracy.

Last week openDemocracy revealed that Discreet Law was connected – through its founder Roger Gherson – to an offshore firm in Monaco that had been promoting Portuguese ‘golden visas’ to wealthy Russians and highlighted the work another of Gherson’s UK firms had done on a similar UK scheme.

Such programmes have allowed wealthy individuals to gain residency and ultimately citizenship in European countries in return for large investments, but the war in Ukraine has heightened security concerns and prompted a crackdown.

The UK closed its scheme in the week before the Russian invasion last year. Portugal and Ireland both announced the closure of their schemes last week.

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