WASHINGTON (CN) — A Russian national nicknamed “Putin’s chef” told a federal judge Wednesday that his catering business has complied fully with U.S. government subpoenas ahead of a criminal trial next month where the company will face charges of 2016 election interference.
The sworn statement from Yevgeniy Prigozhin, translated from Russian to English, comes just days after federal prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich to hold the defendant’s St. Petersburg-based company Concord Management in contempt of court for failing to hand over requested records with the jury trial fast approaching.
“We’re starting to have some concerns about whether Concord is really participating in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Jed told Friedrich in hearing on Monday.
The judge ordered Concord Management to file a declaration explaining what measures it has taken to produce the requested documents, making clear she wanted the assurance directly from an employee at the Russian firm, and not the defendant’s U.S. attorney.
In a criminal case brought by former special counsel Robert Mueller accusing three Russian companies and 13 Russian individuals of interfering in the 2016 presidential election, Prigozhin rises as the most notorious figure, with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian national pushed up against the U.S. government’s claim that the company has been shirking its role in the criminal prosecution, assuring the judge in his written statement that the firm will appear at trial next month.
“As to whether Concord is actively participating in this case, a question raised by the prosecutors at the March 2, 2020 hearing, I can assure the court that Concord has gone to great lengths to participate in this case and has every intention of participating in the trial, appearing through our counsel as U.S. law provides,” Prigozhin wrote.
Prosecutors claim Prigozhin funded and directed the Internet Research Agency, a Russian firm charged with undertaking an extensive troll campaign to interfere in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 race to the White House.
But the Russian businessman claimed that Concord Management, after an extensive search of its records, came up empty in response to a series of U.S. government requests.
“As is common practice for many Russian organizations, Concord does not as a rule keep electronic copies of business documents; therefore, contracts, correspondence (other than electronic mail which is destroyed), corporate documents and the like are kept in paper folders on-premises at Concord’s office,” Prigozhin wrote.
Identifying himself as Concord Management’s general director and currently the sole shareholder, Prigozhin claimed the company made no direct or indirect payments to Internet Research Agency from January 2014 through January 2018.
Federal prosecutors requested financial records of any such payments along with company communications and IP addresses last year.
Claiming the company does not use electronic back-up systems or maintain off-site duplicates of records, the Russian defendant said he tasked Concord Management’s chief accountant with carrying out the records search.
“No records were found,” Prigozhin wrote.
Attributing the scarcity of responsive documents to a company policy for records maintenance requiring all emails and records be automatically destroyed on mail servers and workstations after three months, Prigozhin provided a copy of the company order establishing the policy dated April 17, 2014.
The memo cites the “increasing number of hacker attacks in Russia aimed at gaining unlawful access to electronic mail databases” as the reason for the protocol change to “minimize the risks of unauthorized access of third parties to confidential information.”
Prigozhin in his sworn statement argued that Concord Management’s “recordkeeping practices must be understood in the context of Russian, not American, practices,” and that the company has been the victim of several cyberattacks and expects future cyberattacks from the U.S. government.
But Jed, a top prosecutor on the case, raised concerns with Judge Friedrich on Monday, ahead of her ordering the sworn statement, over the credibility of the declaration, given the defendants were charged with creating false materials as part of a conspiracy to defraud the U.S.
“It gives us pause … that they are just going to write something down and give it to the U.S. government,” the assistant U.S. attorney said.