WASHINGTON (CN) – Though critical of newly released information not contained in the indictment, a federal judge said she will not impose sanctions in the criminal case over 2016 election meddling by Russia.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich unsealed her July 1 ruling on Monday night, agreeing with attorneys for Concord Management and Consulting that the special counsel Robert Mueller’s mentions of the case in his long-awaited report could unfairly prejudice a jury.
Owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, Concord is the only defendant named in a February 2018 indictment to appear in court. The company will go to trial in Washington on charges that it funded the Internet Research Agency’s campaign of online trolls in support of President Donald Trump’s election — allegations that Mueller expanded upon in the expansive report he turned over earlier this year to Attorney General William Barr.
For defense attorney Eric Dubelier with Reed Smith, the twin actions of Mueller’s report and Barr’s press conference about it served as “a sword to prejudice Concord, and a shield to hide discovery.”
Tension between the parties, particularly over the ethics of discovery, has long dominated the case: Concord’s attorneys are barred by a protective order from sharing information with the company’s officers, or employees in Russia. Prosecutors argue that the order is crucial to national security.
Though Friedrich said she agreed that Muller and Barr’s statements crossed the line, she found neither sanctions or an order of contempt were warranted since the officials had not acted in bad faith.
“The court remains confident that any prejudice can and will be cured through the passage of time, voir dire, and jury instructions,” the opinion states.
Rule 57.7 prohibits lawyers from expressing opinion that would prejudice a case, but Friedrich emphasized that “a violation of a standing court rule does not involve the same affront to the court’s authority as would a violation of a specific court order directing a party to take or refrain from a particular action.”
Friedrich also said that contempt “should be initiated only as a last resort,” and only if parties violated the rule “willfully,” which did not occur here. Friedrich took care to point out that Barr has two roles in the case.
“[It] is incompatible with the willfulness required … for criminal contempt … and the attorney general’s careful (but incorrect) assessment of his competing obligations does not suggest a reckless disregard for his responsibilities to the court,” Friedrich wrote.
Friedrich entered an order that she said would limit “public statements about this case moving forward and cautions the government that any future violations of that order will trigger a range of potential sanctions.”
Dubelier did not comment on the record Monday, and the Office of the Attorney General did not respond to requests for comment.
Back in January, Dubelier accused the court of bias after Judge Friedrich said his references to pop culture during a hearing were “unprofessional, inappropriate and ineffective.”