WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Russian company accused by U.S. prosecutors of funding a propaganda operation to tilt the 2016 presidential election in President Donald Trump’s favour and stir disharmony in the United States pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in federal court.
Concord Management and Consulting LLC is one of three entities and 13 Russian individuals indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in February in an alleged criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the U.S. race, boost Trump and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
The indictment said Concord is controlled by Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, who U.S. officials have said has extensive ties to Russia’s military and political establishment. The indictment said Concord controlled funding, recommended personnel and oversaw the activities of the propaganda campaign.
Prigozhin, also personally charged by Mueller, has been dubbed “Putin’s cook” by Russian media because his catering business has organised banquets for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior political figures. He has been hit with sanctions by the U.S. government.
“We plead not guilty. We exercise the right to a speedy trial,” the company’s U.S.-based defence lawyer Eric Dubelier said during the arraignment before Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey, who scheduled a May 16 status hearing.
Another business entity that prosecutors said was controlled by Prigozhin, Concord Catering, was named in the indictment, along with the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm.
Dubelier told the court he was not authorized to represent Concord Catering, adding that prosecutors had indicted a “proverbial ham sandwich” because the entity did not exist during the time the alleged misconduct occurred.
Mueller’s indictment said the Russian defendants adopted false online personas to push divisive messages, travelled to the United States to collect intelligence and orchestrated political rallies while posing as Americans. Moscow has denied meddling in the election.
Mueller also is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia and whether the president has unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe. Trump has denied collusion and obstruction, calling Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt.”
Russia does not have an extradition agreement with the United States, making it difficult to apprehend the Russian defendants.
As expected, no corporate representatives for Concord or any of the other corporate defendants appeared in court.
“Alas, they are not here,” prosecutor Jeannie Rhee said. “The government would be thrilled if they were here.”
Mueller’s office tried unsuccessfully to win a delay in the arraignment, saying it was unsure if Dubelier and another U.S. lawyer hired by Concord Management and Consulting were authorized to represent the company because the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia declined to accept a court summons.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham