WASHINGTON (Reuters) - During a testy hearing on Monday, a federal judge set a deadline for a Russian company facing criminal charges related to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election to explain why it had not handed over documents sought by prosecutors, a step that may lead to it being held in civil contempt.
Concord Management and Consulting LLC is due to go on trial next month after being charged in 2018 with conspiracy to defraud the United States for its role in election meddling aimed at sowing discord in the United States, helping President Donald Trump and harming his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich said there is a “strong likelihood” that the St. Petersburg-based company had failed to comply with a prosecution subpoena to hand over corporate documents, meaning it could be held in civil contempt and face fines.
Prosecutors have accused Concord of funding a so-called troll farm engaged in a propaganda campaign during the 2016 race. They have said Concord is controlled by a businessman named Evgeny Prigozhin with ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During a tense exchange with the company’s attorney Eric Dubelier, Friedrich ordered Concord to submit a sworn statement from a company representative by 5 p.m. (2200 GMT) on Wednesday explaining the steps it took to search for corporate financial records and internet IP addresses sought by prosecutors.
“I find it implausible that Concord cannot indicate the IP address for a four-year period,” Friedrich said, prompting Dubelier to accuse her of already reaching a conclusion.
“We just come here and we sit here and you read a pre-determined order,” Dubelier said.
The case stems from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that documented Russian election interference. Concord’s corporate officers have never set foot in the U.S. courtroom and are not expected to do so. Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
Prior efforts between the prosecution and Concord’s defence lawyers to arrange for its officials to travel to the United States to review the evidence and prepare for the trial have failed, according to prosecutor Adam Jed.
Dubelier said Concord had complied with the subpoena and produced all the records it possesses.
“He has no basis to allege that Concord is not participating in the process,” Dubelier said of Jed’s comments. “It’s bogus.”
Dubelier said he was authorized to provide more details to the court about Concord’s search for records, but he had to provide it in a way in which the prosecution would not be privy to the disclosure. Dubelier was unable to name a person from the company, however, who could address how the search was conducted.
“I want an explanation, and I want it from Concord,” Friedrich said.
“There’s an assumption in the tone you use with me ... that I’m doing something sneaky or wrong,” Dubelier said. “And I’m not. I’m not.”
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham