U.S. may balk at trial over Russian interference in 2016 election

The Justice Department signaled Monday that it could back away from plans to put a Russian company on trial next month on a criminal charge that it bankrolled online and offline troll activity during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

During a court hearing in Washington, a prosecutor questioned whether the firm linked to an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — Concord Management and Consulting — was sufficiently involved in the American legal process to demand a trial on the criminal conspiracy charge obtained by special counsel Robert Mueller in 2018 as part of a broader indictment of Russian companies and individuals.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Jed, who served on Mueller's staff and is still assigned to the case, said Concord's defiance of a court-approved subpoena raised doubts about its commitment to the U.S. trial.

"We're starting to have some concern about whether Concord is really participating in this case," Jed told U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich. "We envision a possible situation where it would not be either possible or prudent to adhere to the current trial schedule."

Screening of potential jurors for the trial has already begun. Potential jurors are scheduled to appear in court April 1 with the trial set to begin in earnest the following week.

Friedrich seemed startled by Jed's suggestion of a postponement, although she indicated earlier in the half-hour-long hearing that she was frustrated with the company's limited response to a subpoena seeking various documents about its corporate structure, calendars of key personnel and internet use.

The judge, an appointee of President Donald , said she was highly suspect of Concord's failure to provide any documents in response to a request for the internet addresses the company used over a four-year period. Prosecutors say the firm's response was so lacking that the company should be held in contempt of court.

The wrangling over Concord's response produced several heated exchanges Monday between Friedrich and one of the American lawyers the company retained to defend itself, Eric Dubelier.

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During one prickly back-and-forth, Dubelier accused the judge of favoring the prosecution in the case and of reading pre-written rulings from the bench after pretending to entertain arguments from both sides.

"You've already reached a decision," he said, also complaining that her "tone" suggested he was "doing something sneaky." At one point, Dubelier also uttered "excuse me" to interrupt the judge — something rarely seen in federal courts.

"I'm not going to argue with you about the way I'm running my courtroom," Friedrich replied, noting that judges aren't required to hold hearings on motions at all.

"Seems to me there are two rules: rules for them and rules for us," Dubelier said.

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Near the outset of the hearing, Dubelier said he was prepared to explain Concord's response to the subpoena, but wanted to do so privately to the judge without prosecutors present.

Friedrich rejected that approach and ordered Concord to produce an affidavit from someone at the company by Wednesday afternoon, explaining what steps the company took and why there are no records responsive to most of the requests prosecutors advanced.

Dubelier eventually said he was authorized to say the company had complied with the subpoena. "What they didn't have, they didn't produce. ... they don't have it," he said.

Jed said the company was already in contempt of court for failing to send an authorized representative to Monday's hearing as the judge demanded, but Dubelier said that was completely unreasonable for the Russia-based firm to do on a couple of days notice.

Jed proposed "a daily fine" against Concord to persuade the firm to comply. It was entirely unclear how the U.S. could collect such a fine, but the same observation could be made about the criminal fine which is the only punishment Concord could receive if ultimately convicted.

Prosecutors allege that Concord is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin crony known as "Putin's chef." While Prigozhin got his start running restaurants, he has since branched out to providing a range of services around the world, including mercenaries who carry out military-like missions for Russian interests.

The indictment filed in the case in 2018 alleges that Prigozhin helped direct a "troll farm" that spread social media memes and even sought to organize demonstrations in the lead up to the 2016 election. Most of the activity opposed Democratic nominee or favored , prosecutors contend.

None of the 13 Russian nationals indicted the case, including Prigozhin, have been arrested. When the case was filed, many experts regarded it as a "name and shame" prosecution that would likely never go to trial, but was intended to build public awareness about Russia's meddling in U.S. politics.

Concord, one of three Russian companies charged in the indictment, may have surprised prosecutors by retaining U.S. lawyers and demanding a trial. Preparations for the trial also involve giving the company access to evidence developed in the case, although Friedrich has put limits on some of that information being sent out of the U.S.

Some legal experts have predicted that the prosecution would eventually be dropped because convicting a Russian company of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government would provide little more than symbolic impact, while inviting a variety of complications.

Jed's comments Monday about possibly putting off the trial were surprising in part because of various indications from the prosecution in recent weeks that they were preparing to put on an aggressive case against the company at the jury trial the firm has demanded.

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