(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. lawyer entered a not guilty plea Wednesday on behalf of a firm controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian caterer nicknamed Putin’s chef, to charges accusing it of interfering in the 2016 elections.
The firm, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, was the first of three companies and 13 Russian nationals to respond to the charges by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. A February indictment accuses them of producing propaganda, posing as U.S. activists and posting political content on social media as so-called trolls to encourage strife in the U.S.
U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey accepted the not guilty plea from Eric Dubelier, a lawyer at Reed Smith LLP on behalf of the company. Concord is one of two companies controlled by Prigozhin, who is also charged in an indictment that accuses them of engaging in operations to interfere with the elections and the political process.
Dubelier and prosecutors sparred in court filings in recent days, and they continued to do so at the 15-minute hearing on Wednesday. Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee questioned whether Dubelier was appearing on behalf of both Prigozhin companies, Saint Petersburg-based Concord Management and Concord Catering. She cited a filing by Reed Smith with the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control about the companies. Both firms were sanctioned by OFAC, records show.
Dubelier complained to the judge that prosecutors had gained access to confidential OFAC information. He said Concord Catering didn’t exist at the time of the events outlined in the indictment. While he represented both companies, Dubelier said, “I am authorized to appear today on behalf of the one defendant.”
He then pleaded not guilty on behalf of Concord Management.
In an earlier filing, Dubelier had posed a series of pointed questions about how prosecutors built their case and the identity of all witnesses and cooperators.
Prosecutors told the judge in a filing that Dubelier had refused to confirm whether Concord has been served with a summons. They said that without such confirmation, there was no guarantee that Concord would accept the court’s jurisdiction and abide by the federal rules of procedure. But a judge refused the request by prosecutors to postpone the arraignment.
Previous attempts to get the Russian government to help deliver the summons to Saint Petersburg-based Concord Management have failed, prosecutors said.
The 37-page indictment describes how hundreds of Russians used social media, fake rallies and secretive operatives in the U.S. to create “political intensity” among radical groups, opposition social movements and disaffected voters. In 2014, the indictment says, several Russians traveled to the U.S. under false pretenses “to collect intelligence for their interference operations.”
Prigozhin is known as Putin’s chef because of his close ties to President Vladimir Putin -- Concord Management provides food services to the Kremlin. Mueller also accuses a related catering firm and another Prigozhin group called the Internet Research Agency with running a vast troll operation designed to sow discord in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Prigozhin has known Putin since the 1990s, when both lived in Saint Petersburg and Putin was the city’s deputy mayor.
The next hearing in the case will be on May 16.
The case is U.S. v. Internet Research Agency LLC, 18-cr-32, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
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