Yevgeny Prigozhin, better known as “Putin’s cook,” was indicted in February for leading a sophisticated online trolling effort to undermine the last U.S. election.
Now the man who built a fortune in catering before allegedly being tasked to run some of Russia’s most sensitive top-secret foreign intelligence and military operations has staked out a new battlefield, inside a Washington courtroom, just a few blocks from the White House. It's where he's doing a different kind of trolling, aimed at the man who indicted him: special counsel Robert Mueller.
Rather than simply ignore the charges announced in February, as many legal observers had expected, a Russian company controlled by Prigozhin hired a team of aggressive Washington lawyers and met Mueller’s prosecutors in court.
What’s followed has been an unusually abrasive, bare-knuckle courtroom strategy, according to former prosecutors and defense attorneys who spoke with VICE News.
The company’s defense has insisted the Russian tycoon be allowed to access data and documents from the Mueller probe, accused Mueller’s team of acting unconstitutionally, and hurled unusually sharp and vitriolic language at prosecutors.
The goal, legal experts familiar with the case told VICE News, appears to be not just winning this case but also throwing a wrench into Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign.
That strategy has transformed what might have been a largely symbolic indictment into a serious legal challenge, observers said.
“They don’t really care whether they piss off other people”
The defense team has challenged Mueller’s legitimacy and swamped prosecutors with a litany of court motions and requests, while firing off unusually sharp and personal rhetoric, outside legal observers told VICE News.
“They’re acting as aggressively as they possibly can, and they don’t really care whether they piss off other people,” said Jens David Ohlin, Cornell Law vice dean and expert in international criminal law. “It’s over the top.”
Defense attorneys Eric Dubelier and Katherine Seikely of Reed Smith have challenged Mueller’s appointment itself as “unlawful” and “unconstitutional.” They’ve dinged prosecutors’ arguments and statements as “annoying,” “ludicrous,” and “pettifoggery,” building toward a “shameful crescendo.”
Mueller’s accusations carry “a strong odor of hypocrisy,” given the American CIA’s history of intervening in Chile in 1973 and Iran in 1953, they wrote in one filing.
“On an aggressiveness scale of 1 to 10, they’re about a 12 or a 14.”
A conference call with Mueller’s team scheduled to last an hour ended in just 9 minutes when Dubelier “hung up the phone,” prosecutor Jeannie Rhee told the judge on May 16.
Dubelier fired back: “I resent the implication that the special prosecutor made in court that I would hang up the phone on somebody. I didn’t do it.”
The unusually charged language suggests the lawyers for the accused Russian company, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, may be sending signals to the public at large, said Barbara McQuade, former U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Michigan.
“Calling something ‘shameful’ or ‘annoying’ is rarely effective with judges or prosecutors, and may even be counterproductive,” McQuade told VICE News. “It suggests they may really be trying to persuade the public.”
The combative approach has been accompanied by requests, in writing, for detailed responses from Mueller’s team about more than 50 subjects. It’s an ask that may be effectively designed to eat up the prosecutors’ time, observers said.
“On an aggressiveness scale of 1 to 10, they’re about a 12 or a 14,” said Renato Mariatti, a former federal prosecutor.
But the approach, he said, represents a serious legal challenge to Mueller’s team.
“This is some of the better lawyering that we’ve seen in any of these Mueller cases,” he said.
The fight for Mueller’s data
This week Mueller’s team and the defense lawyers fought over a particularly sensitive point: whether to grant Prigozhin himself or his associates access to potentially 2 terabytes of Mueller’s data about the alleged Russian online trolling operation during the 2016 campaign.
The evidence includes files related to hundreds of social media accounts and information obtained from email providers, internet service providers, and financial institutions — as well as details about law-enforcement and intelligence information-gathering techniques, according to the prosecution.
Mueller’s team has sought to block Prigozhin, or anyone else from Concord, from gaining unfettered access, arguing the files might be turned over directly to Russian spies.
“The government has particularized concerns about discovery in this case being disclosed to Russian intelligence services,” prosecutors wrote.
“Their goal seems to be to get as much secret information as the government has.”
The defense said that such a blanket ban would prevent them from discussing evidence with the man in charge of the company now defending itself, and from verifying the authenticity of documents with the very people alleged to have created them.
The request to gain access to that massive store of data may be aimed at learning what the U.S. government knows about Russian cyber-meddling, said Mariatti.
“Their goal seems to be to get as much secret information as the government has,” Mariatti told VICE News. “The strategy is very skillful.”
Nothing to lose
When Mueller’s team indicted Prigozhin, three companies, and 12 other individuals for allegedly running an online campaign aimed at undermining the U.S. 2016 election, few expected a trial would actually follow.
But Prigozhin and his company have little to lose, observers said. Enforcing any kind of judgement or fine against a Russian company with no real presence in the United States would be practically impossible, even if it’s found guilty, they said.
Prigozhin himself hasn’t turned up to answer the charges in person, and U.S. law doesn’t allow him to be tried if he stays abroad.
“This is some of the better lawyering that we’ve seen in any of these Mueller cases.”
Meanwhile, the lawyers for his company don’t have the usual incentive to maintain cordial relations with prosecutors or the judge in order to potentially seek leniency if their client is later found guilty, said Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York.
“Most defense attorneys don’t take this tack from the beginning, because the government is a repeat litigator,” Rocah said. “You may not want to burn those bridges.”
But Mueller’s prize for victory, according to Ohlin of Cornell Law, carries symbolic significance: proving, in court, a Russian attempt to interfere in the election.