Russian firm linked to ‘Putin’s chef’ pleads not guilty in Mueller probe

Russian firm linked to ‘Putin’s chef’ pleads not guilty in Mueller probe
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A Russian company charged in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThis week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Top Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction MORE’s sprawling probe into Russian interference in the presidential election pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal charges related to the spreading of divisive content on social media.

A U.S. attorney for the company, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, offered the not guilty plea at an initial appearance and arraignment in federal court in Washington, D.C., before Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey.

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The indictment, unveiled in February, alleges that the so-called Internet Research Agency and individuals and entities associated with it knowingly and intentionally conspired with one another “to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

It alleges that Concord Management funded the operation of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that spread divisive content on social media to U.S. audiences as part of a broader plot to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

The company is said to be controlled by Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who has been nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his reported close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The individuals and entities charged in February as part of the Internet Research Agency case were largely thought to be out of the reach of U.S. prosecutors because they are based in Russia.

However, Concord Management notified a federal judge last month that it had retained D.C.-based attorneys to argue on its behalf.

Those attorneys, Eric Dubelier and Katherine Seikaly of the law firm Reed Smith, appeared in court on Wednesday to plead not guilty on the company’s behalf. No representatives from Concord Management were present at the arraignment.

According to the February indictment, Prigozhin and companies controlled by him, including Concord Management and Concord Catering, played a significant role in funding and overseeing the interference activities of the Internet Research Agency.

The indictment alleges that, by September 2016, the troll farm’s monthly budget for the operation exceeded 73 million Russian rubles, amounting to over $1.2 million.

The lawyers representing Concord Management told Harvey that they do not represent any of the other entities charged in February. In emphasizing that fact, Dubelier accused the government of indicting a “proverbial ham sandwich” in connection with the alleged interference plot. 

Jeannie Rhee, an investigator with Mueller’s office, clarified that it was the government’s understanding that the lawyers had engaged them on behalf of Concord Management and Concord Catering, pointing to a filing with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Treasury Department.

Dubelier took that to mean that the special counsel’s office has access to sensitive files on Concord Management through OFAC, calling it “disturbing.” He did not elaborate further.

No representatives from the other entities were present at the hearing Wednesday afternoon — something not surprising but disappointing to Mueller's office.

“The government would be thrilled if they were,” said Rhee. 

Attorneys with the special counsel’s office indicated they would need additional time to exacerbate “other channels” to pursue the summons with regard to the Internet Research Agency and Concord Catering. 

The judge scheduled status hearings for updates on the case for May 16 and July 9.

Mueller was dealt a blow in the case last week when a federal judge denied his request to delay Wednesday’s arraignment. In a filing on Friday, Mueller’s team asked for a delay in the scheduled hearing, saying that it was unclear whether the attorneys had accepted the summons in the case.

Mueller's investigation is also looking into whether there was collusion between President TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE's campaign and Moscow in the interference plot.

Mueller has secured guilty pleas from a trio individuals in Trump's orbit, including onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn and Richard Gates, who worked on the president's campaign. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortHow Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann's offer to an oligarch could boomerang on DOJ Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Key numbers to know for Mueller's testimony MORE has also been indicted on a slew of charges related to his financial dealings with pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, though he has pleaded not guilty.