A Russian company tied to a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin entered a not-guilty plea Wednesday in a U.S. criminal case charging that it funded internet trolls and polarizing social media advertisements in a bid to boost Donald Trump's chances of winning the 2016 presidential election.
Prosecutors from special counsel Robert Mueller's office allege that the firm, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, was controlled by a Russian oligarch known as Putin's chef, Yevgeniy Prigozhin. He is one of the 13 individuals charged in the case.
Neither Prigozhin nor any officer or owner of Concord Management showed up at the U.S. district court in Washington for the brief arraignment hearing. However, two U.S. attorneys, Eric Dubelier and Kate Seikaly of law firm Reed Smith, represented the company.
"We waive formal reading of the indictment and enter a plea of not guilty and exercise our right to a speedy trial," Dubelier told U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey.
Prosecutors had raised concerns about whether the lawyers could appear for the firm without accepting a formal summons in the case, but Harvery said federal court rules permit a corporation to appear through a lawyer.
The U.S. court appearance by Concord Management seems to be a legal gambit to force Mueller to turn over reams of evidence in the case without being able to lay hands on the individual defendants including Prigozhin. Some lawyers believe prosecutors could drop the case against that firm and two other companies in order to avoid disclosing sensitive information about how the investigation unfolded.
Prosecutors last week asked that the arraignment be delayed by more than a month, but U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich rejected that request.
During the hearing Wednesday, prosecutor Jeannie Rhee said her office obtained information from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control that Dubelier's firm was representing both Concord Management and a related company known as Concord Catering, raising questions about whether he was appealing in court for both businesses.
Harvey suggested he found that interesting, but not particularly relevant to Wednesday's arraignment.
"OK, what would you like me to do with that?" the magistrate asked Rhee.
Dubelier said he wasn't authorized to appear in court for Concord Catering, a firm which he contended should never have been listed in the indictment returned in February.
"The government indicted a proverbial ham sandwich—somebody that didn't exist...at the time period alleged by the government," the defense attorney said.
Later in the hearing, Dubelier mustered some outrage at Rhee's disclosure that prosecutors had seen the paperwork he filed with Treasury to obtain formal authorization to provide legal services to the companies, which are subject to U.S. sanctions as a result of the same election-related conduct alleged in the indictment.
"We now know [prosecutors accessed] a confidential filing of OFAC, which in an of itself is a disturbing fact," he said.
Harvey formally advised Dubelier that the company could face a fine of up to $500,000 or up to twice the financial damage involved if convicted on the single felony count it faces: conspiracy to defraud the United States. The magistrate also said the company has the right to remain silent.
When the case was filed in February, many legal experts viewed it as a so-called "name-and-shame" indictment, filed to call public attention to the alleged crimes and to make international travel more difficult for the defendants, but with no real expectation that any defendant was likely to show up in court. The Russian firm's appearance could be seen as an effort to call prosecutors' bluff by forcing them to proceed to a trial they never expected to have to put on.
Harvey asked Wednesday whether any of the 13 individuals or the two other companies named as defendants were in the courtroom.
"They're not here. I believe they're not here," the magistrate said.
"Alas, they are not here," Rhee responded. "The government would be thrilled if they were here."
Harvey set a May 16 hearing for lawyers on both sides to appear before Friedrich, a Trump appointee who is the newest jurist on the bench of the U.S. district court in Washington.
The indictment claims that a St. Petersburg-based firm long suspected of ties to the Kremlin, the Internet Research Agency, used social media, email and other means to manipulate “unwitting” American citizens and Trump campaign officials into protests, demonstrations and the recirculation of media messages. Most of the interventions were intended to benefit Trump or demean his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, prosecutors said, with many seeking to exacerbate racial or religious division.