WASHINGTON —The Russian-American lobbyist who attended a meeting at Trump Tower last year is a former military officer who has attracted congressional scrutiny over his political activities and has been shadowed by allegations of connections to Russian intelligence.
Rinat Akhmetshin, who denies these allegations, confirmed his participation in the June 2016 meeting to The Associated Press on Friday.
Akhmetshin is known for having lobbied to weaken a U.S. law levying sanctions on Russians and his name has also surfaced in lawsuits, including one involving the hacking of a company's computer systems.
Emails released this week by Donald Trump Jr. show the president's oldest son agreed to the meeting with the idea that he would receive damaging information on Hillary Clinton from someone described to him as a "Russian government attorney." Akhmetshin began working with that attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in 2015, after a public relations person he declined to name introduced them.
The Russian government has denied any involvement or knowledge of the meeting. Asked Friday about Akhmetshin, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters: "We don't know anything about this person."
Akhmetshin denied suggestions made in media reports, congressional letters and litigation that he is a former officer in Russia's military intelligence service known as the GRU, dismissing the allegations as a "smear campaign." He told the AP that he served in the Soviet Army from 1986 to 1988 after he was drafted but was not trained in spy tradecraft. He said his unit operated in the Baltics and was "loosely part of counterintelligence."
Akhmetshin, a naturalized American citizen who has lived in Washington since the early 1990s, and Veselnitskaya were known for lobbying efforts to undercut the Magnitsky Act, a brace of economic sanctions targeting Russian officials and individuals. The act passed by Congress was named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after accusing Russian government officials and takeover raiders of a $230 million tax fraud scheme in the seizure of an investment firm.
The original Magnitsky Act leveled U.S. financial sanctions on 18 Russian officials and individuals suspected of complicity in Magnitsky's prosecution, imprisonment and death. A Global Magnitsky Act that passed in December 2016 gives the president power to impose visa bans and freeze U.S. assets of anyone who suppresses basic human rights or targets whistleblowers exposing corruption.
Early in 2016, Akhmetshin said, he helped set up a non-profit foundation based in Delaware, the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative, to lobby U.S. officials in an effort to strip Magnitsky's name from the law.
As an adjunct to the foundation's lobbying, Veselnitskaya also organized and attended a screening of an anti-Magnitsky documentary film that played at the Newseum in Washington four days after she met with Trump Jr. in New York. Akhmetshin acknowledged he was also involved in promoting the film.
Several wealthy Russian oligarchs agreed to provide financial backing for the foundation's lobbying, Akhmetshin said, providing at least $300,000. Among them, he said, was Dennis Katsyv, the owner of a real estate investment firm who was battling against a Justice Department lawsuit at the time connected to the seized investment firm.
The federal government this year settled with Katsyv's firm, allowing the company to pay a $6 million fine without admitting guilt.
Congressional lobbying documents show that the foundation Akhmentshin helped set up spent $290,000 last year on lobbying. At least $10,000, the records indicate, was paid directly to Akhmetshim as a lobbyist.