WASHINGTON (CN) – The authority of special counsel Robert Mueller to bring charges over Russian interference in the 2016 election will face stiff opposition from one of the indicted entities, its attorney pledged Wednesday.
Reed Smith attorney Eric Dubelier represents Concord Management and Consulting LLC, which Mueller has charged with funding the Russian troll farms that worked to support Donald Trump’s candidacy in the presidential election.
At a 20-minute status conference in the case today, Dubelier said the count against Concord — conspiracy to defraud the United States — is unconstitutional as applied. Concord will file a motion challenging Mueller’s authority, in addition to asserting failure to state a claim and violations of its due-process rights, Dubelier said.
The tactic is similar to the one being used by former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort in his criminal case, which Mueller is also prosecuting.
Of the three companies and 13 Russian nationals that Mueller’s team indicted on Feb. 16, Concord is the first to respond to the charges. The company is one of two indicted companies owned by Russian oligarch and caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin, a fellow defendant whose ties to the Russian president earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
“I can’t imagine that they seriously envisioned that one or more of these entities would voluntarily show themselves in a U.S. court,” said Washington-based national-security attorney Mark Zaid in a phone interview on the case.
Harry Sandick, a partner with Belknap, noted that Concord’s appearance could be seen as a way for Prigozhin to fight the charges without having to show up himself.
“He would be able to get discovery and a window into the Mueller team’s investigation, but could not himself be punished by the U.S. justice system,” Sandick said in an email.
Sandick used the term “speaking indictment” to describe Mueller’s case because it carefully details the nature of the crimes alleged.
“Now that this defendant appeared, the case will have to be prosecuted or dismissed,” Sandick added.
The U.S. had sought a delay in the case on May 4 to sort out whether Concord had been properly served with the summons and asked for briefing on the issue, but U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich denied the motion.
Attorney Zaid said called such a request by prosecutors unusual.
“I look at that as major egg on the special counsel’s face,” he said.
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson meanwhile said things like that can happen.
“I think people are reading a lot into those tea leaves,” she said in a phone interview.
While they might not be expected in a case of this notoriety, Levinson said unexpected logistical hiccups do pop up.
“I think what they’re saying is, we don’t have all of our ducks in order right now,” she said. “It’s embarrassing, but I don’t think it’s fatal to the investigation.”
Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee meanwhile told the court Wednesday afternoon that the government is ready to move forward with discovery once they can agree on a protective order to shield the material from the public, at least for now.
Dubelier however complained to Judge Friedrich, a Trump appointee, that the government is slow-walking Concord’s discovery requests.
“We’re five weeks into appearance and we’re nowhere,” he said.
Dubelier said the government informed him during a brief call Friday that it has two terabytes of data it wants to “dump” on him, much of it in Russian, and much of it unresponsive to his discovery requests.
Rhee meanwhile denied Dubelier’s claim that prosecutors want to inundate him with discovery.
“It is not a data dump, your honor,” Rhee said.
Rhee insists the data they do have – taken from social-media accounts – is responsive to Dubelier’s requests and provides evidence that Concord used false personas to open up swarms of social media accounts to interfere in the election.
Its voluminosity just points to the extent of the information warfare Russia waged against the United States, she said.
Rhee said materials obtained from internal communications are in Russian, but noted that what she plans to introduce at trial has already been translated.
“And we will of course make that available,” Rhee added.
Concord meanwhile filed a motion Monday asking Friedrich to privately review the grand-jury instructions, hinting that perhaps they were incorrect and could provide the basis for a motion to dismiss.
But attorney Sandick said courts don’t often permit access to grand jury materials so early in litigation.
“The standard for obtaining grand jury materials is difficult to overcome, it happens only rarely in the context alleged here — that legal instructions to the grand jury were incorrect,” he said.
Regardless of whether Concord’s legal strategy succeeds on the merits of the motion for the grand jury materials, attorney Zaid called it “a very bold, in-your-face move” from a public-relations standpoint.
“Without a doubt Concord struck a blow and drew blood,” he said.
Attorney Dubelier said told reporters could not comment on the case after the hearing.
The next status conference in the case is scheduled for June 15.