WASHINGTON (CN) – The Justice Department stunned a federal judge in Washington on Monday by arguing she misinterpreted an indictment brought against a Russian company charged with funding a troll campaign to manipulate the American public during the 2016 presidential race.
A federal prosecutor told U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich that an opinion she issued last year – in which she denied a motion from Concord Management and Consulting to dismiss the case – wrongly narrowed in on a failure to report foreign payments made to influence the election.
“I’m baffled this didn’t trigger a motion from the government at the time,” Friedrich said during a status conference Monday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis said the Justice Department also plans to argue that Concord Management, which is owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, conspired to conceal information from the U.S. government to undermine its ability to enforce campaign finance laws. Special counsel Robert Mueller delineated in his multi-volume report that the company funded the Internet Research Agency operation of online trolls that supported President Donald Trump’s election.
Defense attorney Eric Dubelier, of Reed Smith, said the allegation raised Monday is not in the indictment.
“Even 18 months in we still don’t know what we’re charged with,” Dubelier said.
Earlier in the hearing, Friedrich had said herself that the indictment was “difficult to follow.”
Dubelier informed her that Concord Management now plans to file a second motion to dismiss the charges.
The judge also rejected a request from Concord Management Monday to force the government to identify which defendants allegedly failed to register as foreign agents. She concluded that the government’s provision of a list of alleged conspirators was sufficient information for the defense.
In May, the court ordered the Justice Department to lay out the specific federal statutes the government claims the defendants conspired to undermine, including details on all funds that required disclosure to the Federal Elections Commission and how activities triggered a requirement to register as foreign agents.
Mueller’s indictments targeted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian business entities. But with no extradition treaty between the U.S. and Russia, the defendants can safely avoid standing before a U.S. judge for their role in the Kremlin-directed influence campaign.
Concord Management has chosen to fight the charges, but is unlikely to appear in court with the company’s Reed Smith legal team.
Dubelier repeatedly pleaded for more time, telling the judge that in the coming weeks he will have his first sit-down with Concord Management to go over materials in the case. The attorney was previously barred by a protective order from sharing information with the client, or company employees in Russia, as prosecutors warned it created a national security risk.
Friedrich made clear she has no intention of catering to any suggestion to slow proceedings and said it was time to move toward the proposed April 6, 2020 trial date.
“We are not going to let this case go for another year,” the judge said. “I think if I left it up to you all I would be trying this case in 2021.”