It was the case that was never supposed to go anywhere.
When special counsel Robert Mueller first unveiled a federal grand jury indictment against several Russian individuals and entities accused of using social media to manipulate the 2016 election, the conventional wisdom was that none of the defendants would ever show up in court to fight the case.
The purpose of the 2018 charges, observers suggested, was to inform the public about the social media meddling, and to put Russia on notice that the U.S. was well aware of its efforts. Never would the charges actually be tried in court, the sense was at the time.
Things turned out quite a bit differently.
Over the past two years, defendant Concord Management — a firm run by an oligarch so tight with the Kremlin, he’s known as Putin’s chef — has waged a multi-front legal war with prosecutors.
Fittingly, since Mueller’s charges focused on Russia’s internet trolling, Concord Management has employed a trollish approach to its legal maneuverings.
The firm has hired a team of pugnacious American lawyers who have taunted Mueller in court filings and lashed out at the judge. For months, they have dragged out disputes over procedures that usually are ironed out in a few days. They’ve challenged every aspect of Mueller’s case, from his authority to bring it to the validity of the charges he’s alleged.
The gambit has forced DOJ attorneys to pour considerable time and resources into a case that they likely never thought they’d actually have to prosecute. More than a few times the hostilities have erupted into angry words within the courtroom.
With a trial date just a month away, the tensions have now been raised to a new level, as the Justice Department has requested that Concord Management be held in contempt for blowing off judge-approved trial subpoenas
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, who required that Concord respond to the latest allegations, has ordered a hearing Monday morning on the matter.
Legal experts didn’t believe there’d be much activity in the case after the indictment was announced, because everyone charged was presumed to have the backing of the Russian government, which was never expected to extradite the defendants for prosecution.
Mueller charged Concord Management with a conspiracy to defraud the United States by financing the trolling effort. The firm’s head, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who is also a defendant in the case, is a wealthy restauranteur with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The government has said it has evidence, including budgets, calendar entries and communications, that suggests the firm was paying for the work of Russian agents who published social media posts seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans in 2016. The operation was known as the Internet Research Agency, and its goal, according to Mueller’s report, was to sow “discord in the U.S. political system.”
While Prigozhin himself has not submitted to the court’s jurisdiction, he’s loomed over his company’s litigation of the case. Concord Management’s American defense team has often alluded to their coordination with him, and at one point, they sought to block the United States from invoking Prigozhin’s nickname, “Putin’s chef,” during the trial.
The proceedings were contentious from almost the moment attorneys for Concord Management indicated on the docket that they were appearing on the firm’s behalf. A squabble quickly broke out over Concord Management’s lawyers’ refusal to accept the prosecutors’ summons, while demanding that extensive discovery be produced to the Russian company.
The fight over discovery lasted months, as the Justice Department warned that giving Prigozhin access to sensitive details about the case could help Russia thwart the ongoing U.S. government efforts to prevent criminal activity.
As the judge struggled to resolve that dispute, Concord Management threw other bombs into the pre-trial proceedings.
The firm challenged Mueller’s authority. It attacked the charges as invalid. It asked the judge to hold Mueller and Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt for their rollout of the special counsel report.
At one point, a disagreement broke out during a hearing over whether Concord Management’s lawyers had hung up on Mueller’s attorneys during a phone call.
Along the way, Concord Management’s American lawyers used sarcastic language, pop cultural references and bombastic rhetoric to bash Mueller’s investigation. They called the case “make-believe” and “fake law,” and accused Mueller of “blowing a dog whistle at the feckless media”
They equated the DOJ posture to a scene in Animal House, where one character tells another, “You f**ked up … you trusted us.”
When the judge scolded Concord Management’s lawyers for their “unprofessional” filings, they shot back with accusations that she was biased against them.
That Concord Management has drawn things out this long is surprising, given that observers believed it could just bail on the proceedings any day now. If the case makes it to the actual trial, it will be a stunning turn of events from what was expected when the charges were first announced.
‘Gamesmanship’ With Subpoenas
Now the government wants the court to sanction Concord Management for allegedly stiffing the DOJ on subpoenas issued ahead of trial, which prosecutors say is part of a broader strategy of “gamesmanship.” According to court filings, Concord Management’s lawyers would not confirm that the subpoenas had been fully complied with; the government says it has evidence that they have not.
Concord shot back on Friday in a filing that, while defending the lawyers’ handling of the subpoenas, said that the DOJ’s contempt request showed a “manifest disregard of the record and controlling law.”
The broader battle over the subpoenas has played out partially under seal. But Concord Management has made several aggressive claims about why it didn’t want to turn over the documents prosecutors were demanding for trial. Among its reasons, according to a DOJ filing, is that the U.S. government could use the information it was seeking for a cyber attack against Russia, and then Russia would view Concord Management as an accomplice.
The judge at first agreed with Concord Management that the government’s subpoenas needed to be narrowed, but she now appears fed up with their antics in defying the version of the subpoenas she approved.
For the Monday hearing, she’s ordered that Concord Management make available someone who “can address what actions Concord has taken to comply with the trial subpoenas.”
It will be another test of Concord Management’s willingness to make life miserable for the DOJ prosecutors handling the case.