FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016 file photo, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, gestures on the sidelines of a summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Konstantin palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia. Ten years ago, he served plates to President Vladimir Putin, and these days, St. Petersburg-based businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin funds Kremlin trolls and sends mercenaries to help Russia’s military operation in Syria, all with one aim: to do the president favors that would be too risky for other Russian moguls to undertake. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file)
In February, special counsel Robert Mueller issued the only indictments his team has produced that are even tangentially related to his primary charter of investigating “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. The indictment named thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian entities.The indictment was pretty close to meaningless. None of the Russian nationals were ever going to be extradited. The three Russian companies were under sanctions. The indictment charges them with spreading bad information about Hillary Clinton–a capital offense, it seems, for foreigners to do the job the American press corps just wouldn’t do–and organizing anti-Trump rallies after he was elected (read my take on the indictment).
All in all, the indictment had the reek of a public affairs stunt pulled to divert criticism of Mueller’s total disinterest in anything to do with Russian involvement in the 2016 election. None of the Russians were ever being indicted. It was obvious that some of the Russians had been under physical surveillance by the FBI but they had been allowed to operate. The Russian companies had no connection to the US. Now he could yell, “Look! Russians!” and get back to the real work of raiding Trump’s attorney.
But now one of the Russian companies, Concord Management and Consulting, has called Mueller’s bluff.
Concord is a kleptocratic criminal enterprise run by a Putin crony named Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin got his start as Putin’s favorite restauranteur and, from there, branched out into real estate development and anything else he could get the Russian government to throw his way. Prigozhin gives the impression that he’s the guy in charge of Wagner Group. Wagner Group is the Russian private military contractor which got mauled by American forces in Syria earlier in the year. The head of Wagner is Prigozhin’s former head of security.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Concord has decided to go to trial.
A Russian company criminally charged with interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election formally notified a federal judge Wednesday that it has retained U.S. attorneys — a move that could be a bid to gain access to evidence that special counsel Robert Mueller’s office gathered in preparing the case.
When the criminal case was filed, many legal experts predicted it would lie dormant indefinitely and never go to trial because none of the defendants were likely to set foot in the U.S. or in a country from which they could be readily extradited. However, no individual is required to appear on behalf of a corporate defendant, other than a lawyer for the company.
When foreign companies typically appear to fight or admit to criminal charges, it is because they have a business need to continue operating in the U.S. It’s unclear if the Russian firms have such financial ties.
However, by appearing in court through counsel, Concord could force prosecutors to turn over discovery about how the case was assembled as well as evidence that might undermine the prosecution’s theories. In addition, Concord’s move creates the possibility of a trial that could expose sensitive intelligence information without the prospect of ultimately sending anyone to prison.
This, as the pull quote suggests, poses a problem for Mueller. He went from using an indictment against a sanctioned company as a PR gimmick to actually having a bruising court fight on his hands with an adversary who can match him dollar-for-dollar and who can afford top quality lawyers. In other words, Concord and Prigozhin are not George Papadopoulos or Mike Flynn.
Mueller’s team can’t try Concord based on secret information so they will have to make a choice about how important that information is. I suspect that we’d be horrified if we saw the case presented to the grand jury because, again, it is a safe bet that there really is minimal evidence because no one on Mueller’s team thought this case would go to trial.
If one had to place a bet here, the safe one is that the indictment against Concord gets quietly dropped–not because of the danger it poses to national security but because of the danger it poses to Mueller’s reputation. Most of all, I really hate that Mueller has put us in the position of relying upon a Russian oligarch and Putin crony and really distasteful person to help restore the rule of law to the United States.