Russian firm pleads not guilty to election meddling charge

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Russian company accused of funding a conspiracy to meddle in the 2016 presidential election pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court in Washington.

The court appearance was the first by any of the Russian defendants accused by special counsel Robert Mueller of participating in a covert social media campaign aimed in part at helping Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. The indictment against the company, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, and 15 other defendants was the first brought by Mueller’s team to directly attach criminal charges to Russian attempts to interfere in the election.

The company is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman who was placed on a U.S. sanctions list earlier this year and who has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During a brief afternoon hearing, attorney Eric Dubelier, who represents the company, entered the not guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, but neither Prigozhin nor a company representative appeared.

Dubelier told U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey that he did not represent any other defendants, including Prigozhin or another company identified as “Concord Catering,” which he said didn’t exist during the time period laid out in the indictment.

“We’re dealing with the government indicting the proverbial ham sandwich,” Dubelier said, referring to the inclusion of the other company in the indictment.

In response, prosecutor Jeannie Rhee revealed that Mueller’s investigators had reviewed documents submitted by the company’s attorneys to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers U.S. sanctions. Those documents, Rhee said, showed Dubelier’s law firm represented both companies.

Prigozhin — who has been referred to as “Putin’s chef” because his restaurants and catering businesses have hosted the Russian president — and 12 other Russians are personally charged in the indictment. It lays out a broad conspiracy that prosecutors say was carried out by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian social media troll farm, to sow discord in the U.S. political system from 2014 through 2017. Concord is accused of overseeing and providing millions of dollars in funding to the troll farm.

None of the other Russian defendants appeared in court Wednesday.

“Alas, they are not here,” Rhee told Harvey. “The government would be thrilled if they were here.”