CNN visits Russian 'troll farm' from indictment

CNN's Matthew Chance visits the Russian office named in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment.

Posted: Nov 16, 2018 9:34 AM
Updated: Nov 16, 2018 9:48 AM

A federal judge on Thursday upheld a federal indictment against the Russian troll farm accused of meddling in the 2016 election, handing a victory to special counsel Robert Mueller.

In a 32-page opinion, Judge Dabney Friedrich rejected efforts by Concord Management and Consulting to dismiss the indictment, which accused the Russian company of conspiring to defraud the US government. Mueller's team says the company was involved in a well-funded "troll farm" that pumped out political propaganda to millions of Americans throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.

It was the second time that Friedrich, a Trump appointee, sided with Mueller and let the case proceed. Earlier this year, she rebuffed Concord's arguments that there were constitutional problems with Mueller's appointment and authority. Thursday's ruling centered more on the merits of the indictment.

Concord was charged with conspiring to defraud the US government by hiding its election-related activities and failing to register as a foreign agent trying to influence the US political process. The company wasn't charged with violating these laws, a point Concord made in its arguments.

But in upholding the indictment, Friedrich wrote that "the key question" was not whether Concord violated the underlying US laws that regulate foreign agents and political spending. Instead, she said the threshold to indict Concord on the conspiracy charge was whether the company's actions were "deceptive and intended to frustrate the lawful government functions" of the relevant agencies.

Friedrich concluded that Mueller's team showed "plenty" of evidence that Concord tried to deceive US government agencies, bolstering the decision to indict the Russian firm. She cited parts of the indictment that accused Concord employees of lying to the State Department on visa applications and using virtual private networks to hide the fact that their social media posts originated from Russia.

She also knocked down Concord's argument that the indictment should be dropped because Mueller did not prove that the Russians were aware of the relevant US laws and "knowingly" violated those laws.

But again, Friedrich said Concord was overreaching. While prosecutors usually need to show that defendants "knowingly" violated election and lobbying laws, Concord was not charged with those crimes. They were charged with conspiracy, and that statute does not carry the same requirements.

"Concord goes too far ... a general knowledge that US agencies are tasked with collecting the kinds of information the defendants agreed to withhold and conceal would suffice," Friedrich wrote.

Making his first direct move against Russians, Mueller indicted Concord in February, along with two other companies, a dozen of their so-called "trolls," and their oligarch benefactor, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

But none of the 13 indicted Russians have appeared in US courts, and they are expected to remain in their native Russia, where they are safe from extradition. But Concord hired respected American attorneys who have waged an aggressive-but-unsuccessful fight against Mueller in US courts.

CNN previously reported that some Justice Department lawyers have groused that the Mueller team could have avoided this fight with Concord, and the potential for negative court decisions, but ignoring the Russian companies and focusing their indictments on the Russian citizens who ran the troll farm.

Despite these concerns, Mueller has fared well in the courts. Friedrich is one of four federal judges that have upheld Mueller's appointment and constitutionality amid a barrage of legal challenges. Some of those challenges are still ongoing and have moved beyond district courts to the appellate level.

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