Lawyers spar at hearing on Russian troll farm case
A court hearing on special counsel Robert Muellerâs criminal case against Russian internet trolls accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election devolved into squabbling on Wednesday, as a defense lawyer for one of th e Russian firms charged in the case squared off with a prosecutor about their initial interactions.
The contentious but brief court session was the first hearing in the case before Judge Dabney Friedrich, President Donald Trumpâs newest appointee to the U.S. District Court in Washington.
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Muellerâs office obtained a grand jury indictment in February charging 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies with using social media and other means to foment strife in the U.S. in 2016 with a goal of advancing Trumpâs electoral chances.
None of the defendants were expected to appear to face the charges, but one of the companies, Concord Management and Consulting, hired American attorneys who announced plans to fight the case.
The fireworks at Wednesdayâs hearing came after one of those defense lawyers, Eric Dubelier, complained to Friedrich that the government hadnât responded t o or even acknowledged more than 70 discovery requests he made last month. Instead, prosecutors have offered a massive quantity of social media data from accounts that were allegedly set up under fake identities for the purpose of influencing American politics.
âWe had a very brief call on Friday initiated by the government,â Dubelier said. He said prosecutors told him much of the information was in Russian, but they had no translations. âI said, âHow do you know whatâs in it?ââ
âI anticipate we are going to get this massive dump of social media accounts in Russian. This is an American court,â the defense attorney added. âThatâs not what weâve asked for. What Iâd like to get is information that actually helps us defend our client.â
Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee disputed that prosecutors were being recalcitrant.
âWeâll get to what they asked for. â¦ It is not a âdata dump,â Your Honor,â Rhee said. She said the social media accounts in question were a key part of the effort to interfere in the 2016 election.
âThat itâs so voluminous just underscores the vastness of the offense conduct in this case,â the prosecutor said.
Rhee appeared to anger Dubelier by indicating that he cut short the discovery discussion last week.
âDefense counsel hung up and and ended the call within 9 minutes,â Rhee said, adding that an hour had been set aside for the talks. âThe government doesnât want to raise these issues for purposes of a âhe said, she said.ââ
Dubelier came back to the lectern to call Rheeâs account âdemonstrably false,â saying that each side asked whether the other had anything further to say before disconnecting. âThatâs different than hanging up the phone on somebody. I resent the implication that the special prosecutor has made,â Dubelier said, his voice rising.
The exchanges suggested that the litigation in the case is likely to be hard fought. Concord Management, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia, appears to have little to lose but its legal fees. Prosecutors have suggested in court filings that the companyâs decision to appear may have been a gambit to obtain details on the U.S. governmentâs investigation. The indictment alleges that the firm is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch known as Putinâs chef. He is also charged personally in the criminal case but has not appeared.
âThere are a lot of defendants in this case,â Dubelier told the court on Wednesday. âIt appears weâre the only one that is going to show up.â
Concord has already demanded its right to a speedy trial under U.S. law.
Prompted by Friedrich on Wednesday, Dubelier also outlined a series of motions he plans to file, including claims that the âconspiracy to defraud the United Statesâ charge the company faces is legally faulty and that Muellerâs team has targeted the firm for a selecti ve prosecution.
âWe are going to challenge the authority of the special counsel generally,â the defense attorney said. âWeâre going to challenge the authority of the special counsel specifically to bring this case.â
While the government unsuccessfully sought to postpone an arraignment for the firm that took place last week before a federal magistrate judge, Rhee gave no indication on Wednesday that prosecutors were shying away from a trial for Concord Management.
Asked by Friedrich whether the case would involve classified information, Rhee replied, âWe would hope not, Your Honor.â However, she said some of the materials have ânational security sensitivity.â
Both sides said they expected to be able to work out an order to maintain the confidentiality of the information prosecutors turn over from the investigation. Itâs unclear whether that order will permit Dubelier and his colleague Kate Seikaly to share any of that information with P rigozhin or whoever is footing the bill for the companyâs defense.
Friedrich set another hearing in the case for June 15.