‘Putin Chef’ Case Dropped in Mueller Election-Meddling Probe

Erik Larson

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. prosecutors are dropping charges against a Russian company accused of bankrolling a troll farm to influence the 2016 presidential election, saying that pursuing the case against a company with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin would put sensitive American secrets at risk.

The case targeted Concord Management and Consulting LLC -- a company run by a man so close to the Kremlin that his nickname is “Putin’s chef.” Concord was the only Russian entity that responded to the charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s election-meddling investigation.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich granted the government’s request to dismiss the charge late Monday.

With the coronavirus pandemic and the stock market plunge dominating headlines, the Justice Department’s move comes barely 24 hours after President Donald Trump raised the prospect that he would pardon former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI in Mueller’s probe.

Though the case against Concord has been troubled, the U.S. had pressed ahead with the prosecution and given no indication it would back off. A trial was scheduled to start next month.

The case put the Justice Department in a predicament about a year ago because it was under pressure to disclose sensitive U.S. intelligence-gathering secrets to Concord’s defense team as the company prepared for trial.

“The government must weigh the benefits of securing a guilty verdict against the costs of presenting the case at trial, including the potential harms of exposing information and sensitive techniques of great importance to law enforcement, the intelligence community, or both,” the U.S. said in the filing.

Eric Dubelier, Concord’s lawyer with Reed Smith LLP in Washington, rejected the government’s reasoning for dropping the charges and said he was prepared to go to trial and win.

“The government can spin this result however they want, but it will not change the fact that we won and they lost,” Dubelier said in an email. “This was always a make-believe case.”

The U.S. had sought to identify the extent of the relationship between Concord and the troll farm, the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency. Subpoenas that Concord allegedly failed to respond to sought emails and calendar entries for Concord’s controlling officer, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who’s suspected of meeting frequently with Internet Research Agency employees and financing the alleged conspiracy.

The Justice Department said Concord has been “eager and aggressive” in using the Mueller case to gather information about how the U.S. detects and prevents foreign election interference, according to Monday’s filing. Concord sought to gain access to prosecutors’ decision-making materials, as well as grand jury materials, the U.S. said.

“Concord has failed to protect at least some of that discovery from improper use,” prosecutors said in the filing.

Read More: Russian Firm Dodging U.S. Questions on ‘Putin’s Chef’ Ties

Both Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency were also charged by U.S. prosecutors but didn’t respond. Prigozhin recently sent a sworn affidavit to the judge overseeing the case saying Concord had responded to the subpoenas to the best of its ability.

Prigozhin, who’s known as Putin’s chef for his Kremlin catering contracts, has played a key role in Russia’s increasingly intrusive foreign policy, and his name has continued to crop up in reports about alleged government meddling.

An October report by the Stanford Internet Observatory, in conjunction with Facebook Inc., tied an expansive disinformation campaign in Africa -- including Sudan, Mozambique and Madagascar –- to Prigozhin. The tactics included subcontracting the spread of disinformation to local sources, better masking the origin of fake news and propaganda.

Bloomberg News reported last year that mercenaries tied to Prigozhin have fought in Lybia’s civil war and against Syrian rebels. Elsewhere in Africa, his operatives offered security, arms training and electioneering services.

(Updates with comment from Concord lawyer)

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