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Russian firm tied to Putin ally, charged in 2016 trolling campaign, clashes with Mueller probe

Prosecutors with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and attorneys for an indicted Russian firm charged with funding an operation to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election clashed Wednesday over the government’s plan to turn over massive volumes of electronic evidence.

The heated exchange occurred in the case’s initial hearing before a U.S. district judge.

Concord Management and Consulting, founded by business executive Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his ties to president Vladi­mir Putin, pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in Washington last week.

Initial hearings in criminal cases are typically scheduling exercises to prepare for trial, but Wednesday’s proceedings veered into political theater, as lawyers for a Kremlin-linked company hit by U.S. economic sanctions accused prosecutors of lying and cursed loudly after speaking with them once the hearing ended.

The hearing offered a sign of Concord’s Washington-based lawyers’ intent to use their case to exact a price for the indictment, such as through a scorched-earth defense that consumes government resources and prods prosecutors to make embarrassing or security-sensitive revelations, some legal experts said.

The company is the only one of three Russian firms and 13 Russian individuals indicted in February as part of an Internet troll farm to appear in court.

On Monday, in one of their early filings, Concord attorneys accused Mueller of charging “a make-believe” crime of conspiring to “interfere” in a U.S. election for his own political motives.

“The reason is obvious, and is political: to justify his own existence the Special Counsel has to indict a Russian — any Russian,” Concord attorneys Eric A. Dubelier and Katherine Seikaly wrote.

The special counsel charged that the Concord firm financed — and Prigozhin approved and controlled — operations of a third corporate defendant, the Internet Research Agency of St. Petersburg. Prosecutors say the IRA served as the hub of an ambitious conspiracy and fraud from 2014 to 2016 to trick Americans online into following and promoting Russian-fed political propaganda about the campaign.

U.S. spy agencies have documented Prigozhin’s links to senior Russian intelligence figures.

Concord’s attorneys have sought 51 categories of information from Mueller’s team to prepare for their defense, information that several legal experts said might expose or undermine the broader investigation that includes the other Russians charged.

There are signs the case could bog down in battles on several fronts.

Concord’s attorneys said they intend to file at least a half-dozen pretrial motions including challenges to the special counsel’s authority and claims of selective prosecution and violations of due process and the statute of limitations. Dubelier also accused prosecutors of ducking requests for information, including whether evidence would be translated from Russian when it is turned over.

As is typical in complex cases, prosecutor Jeannie Rhee said the government would ask to lift the requirement for speedy trial because the case involves a foreign defendant, poses national security concerns and involves large amounts of evidence.

Rhee said the government told Concord’s lawyers it planned to turn over 1.5 to 2 terabytes of information — roughly equivalent to as much as 500 million double-sided printed pages, or four weeks of continuous streaming video.

Dubelier bridled at what he called a “massive dump of social media accounts in Russian,” saying prosecutors were seeking to bury the defense with ­less relevant material while not responding to its request for information five weeks ago. “This is an American court. It’s not what we asked for . . . . We’d like to get discovery we have actually asked for,” he said.

Rhee said that the government was not engaging in a “data dump,” but that the social media pages allegedly used to manipulate U.S. voters comprise the conduct of the crime.

“The fact that the [evidence] is so voluminous just indicates the vastness of the defendants’ conduct,” Rhee said.

On the other hand, Rhee said the government did not expect to rely on classified evidence, avoiding time-consuming security clearance procedures for lawyers, agency declassification reviews or sealed litigation.

Rhee said that much of the material was already in English — including fake personal accounts used to target Americans — and that the government did not translate all other accounts from Russian but certainly would turn over to the defense translated information that it intended to use.

She also denied Dubelier’s claim that she cut short a Friday telephone conference over a translation dispute, saying instead that he “hung up” nine minutes into a scheduled hour-long planning conference over differences involving Concord’s lawyers’ contact with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, which enforces sanctions.

That last disagreement led to Dubelier’s accusation that Rhee was “demonstrably false” and that he “resented the implication” before cursing loudly after speaking with Rhee once the hearing had ended.

Despite the heated exchanges, the case reunites former federal prosecutors Rhee and Dubelier, who were colleagues earlier in their careers as assistant U.S. attorneys in the District.

Oversight of the case falls to U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich, a Trump appointee and the newest member of the district court in Washington, who joined the court in December. A former law clerk at the court, Friedrich also served as a federal prosecutor and on the Senate Judiciary Committee staff and in George W. Bush’s White House Counsel’s Office.

Friedrich directed both sides to meet to settle differences and report back June 15.

Lawyers for Concord have also asked Friedrich to compel prosecutors to share privately with the court the instructions given to grand jurors, who delivered the indictments. The Concord attorneys said the indictment failed to allege that Concord “willfully” violated U.S. election law — which usually is required for conviction — but before they file a motion to dismiss the charges on what they contend is the omission, they want to know what grand jurors were instructed to consider.

Dubelier and Seikaly are representing Concord’s management business and not two related defendants also under indictment: Prigozhin and a subsidiary catering company that he founded.

None of the Russian defendants had been expected to appear in court, as none of the individuals were in U.S. custody at the time of indictment, and Russia does not allow its citizens to be extradited to the United States to face trial. Russia’s prosecutor general has declined to accept summonses, and the Russian government has taken no steps under a mutual legal assistance treaty to serve them.

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