I don’t think anyone (including the Inquisitor Mueller) anticipated that any of the defendants would appear in court to defend against the charges. Rather, the Mueller prosecutors seem to have obtained the indictment to serve a public relations purpose, laying out the case for interference as understood by the government and lending a veneer of respectability to the Mueller Switch Project.
One of the Russian corporate defendants nevertheless hired counsel to contest the charges. In April two Washington-area attorneys — Eric Dubelier and Kate Seikaly of the Reed Smith firm — filed appearances in court on behalf of Concord Management and Consulting. Josh Gerstein covered that turn of events for Politico.
Gerstein noted that by defending against the charges “Concord could force prosecutors to turn over discovery about how the case was assembled as well as evidence that might undermine the prosecution’s theories.” He also speculated that trial might expose sensitive intelligence information without the prospect of ultimately sending anyone to prison.
Indeed, Concord has submitted discovery requests demanding information supporting the charges. The Special Counsel prosecutors have asked United States District Judge Dabney Friedrich to put off the formal arraignment of Concord set for Wednesday.
The prosecutors assert that Concord hasn’t formally accepted the court summons related to the case. They wrap themselves in a cloud of confusion: “Until the Court has an opportunity to determine if Concord was properly served, it would be inadvisable to conduct an initial appearance and arraignment at which important rights will be communicated and a plea entertained.”
Concord filed its response yesterday. Gerstein has obtained a copy and posted it here. Gerstein quotes this biting point: “[Concord] voluntarily appeared through counsel as provided for in [the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure], and further intends to enter a plea of not guilty. [Concord] has not sought a limited appearance nor has it moved to quash the summons. As such, the briefing sought by the Special Counsel’s motion is pettifoggery.”
It is no surprise that they have failed to respond to Concord’s discovery requests. They don’t even acknowledge Concord has appeared in the case to contest the charges. Gerstein reports that Judge Friedrich “sided with Concord and said the arraignment will proceed as scheduled Wednesday afternoon.”
Gerstein also reports that “Concord intends to assert its speedy trial rights, putting more pressure on the special counsel’s office to turn over records related to the case.” I wonder if the Russians might not be more clever than Mueller. For whatever reason, the Special Prosecutor is complicating the issue and seeking to protract the proceedings.
One hates to be in the position of rooting for the Russians, but the Mueller Switch Project is so distasteful that it is hard not to enjoy the prospect of Mueller having to deal with an actual adversary in court.
Meanwhile, this is probably the first time in the history of litigation that a plaintiff (here, prosecutor) has told a court that it may not have obtained good service of process on a defendant that has appeared to defend the case on the merits. Mueller to Court: We didn’t really mean it, Judge! We had no idea they might actually show up!
Talk about grand-back-pedalling.
(Following three articles are the background history for Mueller’s Russian indictments.)
The dramatic indictment reveals a bold covert effort that went beyond the previously-known use of "fake news" and social media misdirection to divide American voters and harm Trump's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
It charges that as early as 2014, Russian nationals physically entered the U.S., and, hiding their true identities, gathered intelligence, organized political rallies — and even paid Americans to assist their political sabotage. The Russians allegedly paid one American in Florida to dress up as Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform and hired another to build a cage to "imprison" the Clinton impersonator at a Florida rally.
The effort was led by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, a notorious online misinformation operation with suspected Kremlin ties, according to the indictment, and involved what the court filing called "unwitting" U.S. citizens and Trump campaign officials.
The indictment concludes that the Internet Research Agency "had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system." While noting that the operation undermined multiple presidential candidates, including Trump GOP rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the document says that the shadowy Russian agency's operations "included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump... and disparaging Hillary Clinton."
No Trump campaign officials or associates are named in the indictment, which does not address the Russian hacking and theft of Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign or the other known contacts between Trump associates and Russians.
Nor does the indictment say whether the defendants were acting on orders from the Kremlin. But U.S. intelligence officials have previously stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally approved a wider election interference operation. Russia experts said the Kremlin was likely behind the effort.
“It’s hard to read the indictment and not see the 'troll factory' as conducting a Kremlin-sponsored covert action aimed at the U.S. political system," said Andrew Weiss, a former Clinton White House National Security Council aide who handled Russia issues.
Weiss and others noted that one of the indicted Russians, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who controls two companies that finance the Internet Research Agency, is a close Putin ally. The State Department sanctioned Prigozhin last year, citing his ties to senior Russian government officials and Russia's defense ministry.
Democrats said the new charges underscored the gravity of Mueller's investigation and the need for his political independence amid calls from conservatives for an end to his work. Democrats say the indictment proves Russian meddling is no 'hoax,' while Trump allies say charges of Trump campaign collusion with the Kremlin remain baseless.
The firm is one of three companies and 13 individuals charged in a February grand jury indictment with using social media and various agents in the U.S. to foment political and social discord here before and after the 2016 election through a St. Petersburg-based enterprise known as the Internet Research Agency.
When the criminal case was filed, many legal experts predicted it would lie dormant indefinitely and never go to trial because none of the defendants were likely to set foot in the U.S. or in a country from which they could be readily extradited. However, no individual is required to appear on behalf of a corporate defendant, other than a lawyer for the company.
When foreign companies typically appear to fight or admit to criminal charges, it is because they have a business need to continue operating in the U.S. It's unclear if the Russian firms have such financial ties.
However, by appearing in court through counsel, Concord could force prosecutors to turn over discovery about how the case was assembled as well as evidence that might undermine the prosecution's theories. In addition, Concord's move creates the possibility of a trial that could expose sensitive intelligence information without the prospect of ultimately sending anyone to prison.
“A corporation under U.S. law enjoys personhood status and is entitled to many of the same procedural protections as individuals, including the right to counsel and the right to trial by jury," said former Justice Department official David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan. "A corporate criminal defendant also has the same right to obtain discovery of the case against it.”
Concord is nominally in the restaurant business and is owned by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an associate of President Vladimir Putin often referred to as "Putin's chef." If the gambit was successful, Prigozhin could effectively obtain a trial without putting himself personally at risk.
Prosecutors could attempt to head off such a strategy by dismissing Concord and, perhaps, the other corporate defendants, from the case. Dubelier and Seikaly did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Mueller's office also declined to comment.
The case is assigned to Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump appointee and the newest member of the U.S. District Court in Washington. A formal arraignment for Concord Management and the Internet Research Agency was scheduled last month before a magistrate judge but was postponed until May 9. There's no indication of whether IRA or the other firm charged in the indictment, Concord Catering, plan to send attorneys to the hearing.
Dubelier, a former federal prosecutor in Washington and a former assistant district attorney in Louisiana, won a high-profile dismissal last year of a major federal lawsuit against nursing home operator ManorCare. In 2012, he won the acquittal of a former Secret Service agent in a sting operation alleging a conspiracy to pay bribes in connection with the sale of security equipment in Gabon.
Seikaly also litigated the ManorCare case and has defended health care companies in a series of suits over alleged fraud against the government. Uhlmann cautioned that a full-blown trial in the case might not be a boon to the Kremlin or President Donald Trump.
"I doubt a public airing of the evidence of Russian interference during a trial would be politically advantageous to Russia or to President Trump," the professor said. ""This could be a case of be careful what you wish for."
In a brief order Saturday evening, U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich offered no explanation for her decision to deny a request prosecutors made Friday to put off the scheduled Wednesday arraignment for Concord Management and Consulting, one of the three firms charged in the case.
The 13 people charged in the high-profile indictment in February are considered unlikely to ever appear in a U.S. court. The three businesses accused of facilitating the alleged Russian troll farm operation — the Internet Research Agency, Concord Management, and Concord Catering — were also expected to simply ignore the American criminal proceedings.
Last month, however, a pair of Washington-area lawyers suddenly surfaced in the case, notifying the court that they represent Concord Management. POLITICO reported at the time that the move appeared to be a bid to force Mueller’s team to turn over relevant evidence to the Russian firm and perhaps even to bait prosecutors into an embarrassing dismissal in order to avoid disclosing sensitive information.
On Friday, Mueller’s prosecutors disclosed that Concord’s attorneys, Eric Dubelier and Kate Seikaly, had made a slew of discovery requests demanding nonpublic details about the case and the investigation. Prosecutors also asked a judge to postpone the formal arraignment of Concord Management set for next week.
The prosecution team sought the delay on the grounds that it’s unclear whether Concord Management formally accepted the court summons related to the case. Mueller’s prosecutors also revealed that they tried to deliver the summonses for Concord and IRA through the Russian government, without success.
“The [U.S.] government has attempted service of the summonses by delivering copies of them to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia, to be delivered to the defendants,” prosecutors wrote. “That office, however, declined to accept the summonses. The government has submitted service requests to the Russian government pursuant to a mutual legal assistance treaty. To the government’s knowledge, no further steps have been taken within Russia to effectuate service.”
Mueller’s team sent a copy of the formal summons to Dubelier and Seikaly and asked them to accept it on behalf of Concord Management, but Dubelier wrote back on Monday saying that the government’s attempt to serve the summons was defective under court rules. He did not elaborate.
The three companies named in the indictment are all reported to be controlled by a Russian businessman known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin. He’s also one of the 13 individuals criminally charged in the case.
In their request on Friday to put off the arraignment, prosecutors included the extensive demands for information that the lawyers for Concord Management have set forth since they stepped forward last month.
“Until the Court has an opportunity to determine if Concord was properly served, it would be inadvisable to conduct an initial appearance and arraignment at which important rights will be communicated and a plea entertained,” attorneys Jeannie Rhee, Rush Atkinson and Ryan Dickey wrote. “That is especially true in the context of this case, which involves a foreign corporate defendant, controlled by another, individual foreign defendant, that has already demanded production of sensitive intelligence gathering, national security, and foreign affairs information.”