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A Good Day to Bury Bad News: US Justice Department Drops Charges over Russia’s 2016 Election Interference

Caroline Orr reports on how charges against indicted Putin Ally Yevgeny Prigozhin were abandoned just as the coronavirus pandemic in the US set a deadly new record.

Yevgeny Prigozhin
A Good Day to Bury Bad News
US Justice Department Drops Charges over Russia’s 2016 Election Interference

Caroline Orr reports on how charges against indicted Vladimir Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin were abandoned just as the Coronavirus pandemic in the US set a deadly new record.

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As US health officials reported the largest single-day increase in Coronavirus deaths on Monday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) made an abrupt and unexpected move to permanently dismiss the charges against two firms owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch often referred to as “Putin’s chef”.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller – who led an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election and suspicious links between associates of Donald Trump and Russian officials – indicted Prigozhin and two of his firms, Concord Catering and Concord Management & Consulting, in February 2018, for conspiring to defraud the US Government by running a social media-based campaign to interfere in the 2016 election. They are also accused of violating foreign-agent and visa laws.

Prigozhin allegedly used his companies to covertly fund the Internet Research Agency – the St. Petersburg-based troll factory that sponsored and coordinated the social media activities at the heart of Russia’s 2016 influence operation. 

Concord Management & Consulting hired lawyers in the US to fight the case against Prigozhin.

With the 2020 Presidential Election fast approaching, Barr’s Department of Justice has dropped the criminal charges against a pair of Russian companies at the heart of the 2016 election interference operation.

But, just a few weeks before the case was set to go to trial, the DOJ has suddenly dropped its two-year-long prosecution of Prigozhin’s companies.

The timing of the move is notable, coming just as cities and localities across the US are implementing unprecedented measures to control the global Coronavirus pandemic.

Case Against “Putin’s Chef” Dismissed Before Mystery Witness Testimony

Politico reporter Kyle Cheney first reported on the DOJ’s new filing, which states that the decision to dismiss the case was based on national security reasons, as well as difficulty in getting Concord to turn over key evidence. 

Citing these factors, the DOJ concluded that prosecuting Prigozhin and his companies wouldn’t be worth the trouble since they don’t have a presence in the US and could not be subject to punishment. It is worth noting that the US has previously imposed sanctions on Prigozhin and Concord, so it is not entirely true that punishment isn’t possible. 

Furthermore, Prigozhin and his firms haven’t ever had a presence in the US, making it unclear why that suddenly became such an important factor. Prosecutors knew from the start that they were unlikely to see anyone brought to justice for the crimes, but they pursued the case anyway as a “name and shame” effort aimed at drawing attention to Russia’s illicit activity and showing that America would bring charges against anyone caught interfering in the nation’s elections. 

Explaining the national security reasons for dismissing the charges, the DOJ claimed that a “classification determination” had left prosecutors with the choice of presenting a “materially weaker” case or compromising information that could endanger US national security. 

As Cheney noted in his analysis of the court filing, the DOJ’s rationale for dropping the case “point[s] to concerns that they [the Russians] are still actively pursuing similar efforts” – concerns that seem to strengthen the case for charging those involved.

Yet, according to the DOJ, going forward with the case would “promote neither the interests of justice nor the nation’s security”. 

The abrupt dismissal of the charges against Prigozhin’s companies comes just weeks after prosecutors announced that they were planning to introduce a “mystery witness” who reportedly had evidence that would implicate Prigozhin in election interference operations in at least one other country than the US.

Previous reports describe Prigozhin’s involvement in influence campaigns in numerous African countries including Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. These utilised tactics similar to those employed by the Internet Research Agency, including creating fake news sites and producing memes and live videos, as well as promoting propaganda – disguised as analysis – from Russian state media outlets such as Sputnik and RT

In October, Facebook removed 35 accounts, 53 pages, seven groups and five Instagram accounts that originated in Russia and targeted six African countries. A separate analysis, conducted by the Stanford Internet Observatory, uncovered additional Facebook pages and Instagram accounts associated with the same network. By the time the operation was revealed, the content had been ‘liked’ more than 1.7 million times. 

Prigozhin is also widely believed to be the owner of a Russian private military company known as The Wagner Group, which has supplied mercenaries to fight in Ukraine and Syria, as well as a number of African countries

Leaked documents show that the activities of Prigozhin’s companies in Africa were “coordinated with senior officials inside Russia’s foreign and defence ministries”, according to a report by The Guardian.

New Questions about Attorney General’s Handling of Russia Probe

The DOJ’s abrupt reversal marks the latest in a series of controversies involving US Attorney General William Barr’s handling of the Russia investigation. 

The nearly two-year-long investigation, led by special counsel Mueller, came to an abrupt end just over a month after Barr’s confirmation in February 2019. Not a single indictment was issued once Barr was at the helm of the DOJ.

After refusing to recuse himself from the Russia probe, Barr slow-walked the release of the redacted version of Mueller’s report, using the delay to issue a series of contradictory public statements and documents that appeared to be part of an intentional effort to withhold and obscure damaging information about President Trump. When he finally did release the redacted report, Barr refused to let anyone – including top congressional investigators – see the original, unredacted, report.

More recently, Barr and his top aides reportedly intervened to reverse prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation in the case against long-time Trump confidante and former campaign advisor, Roger Stone. All four career prosecutors involved in the case withdrew in protest. 

A short time later, former US Attorney Jessie Liu – who oversaw Stone’s prosecution – resigned from her position after the President withdrew her nomination for a top job at the Treasury Department. Her replacement was handpicked by Barr.

Barr and several top political appointees at the DOJ also reportedly stepped in and pressured prosecutors to reduce the sentencing recommendation for Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Prosecutors had recommended a sentence of six months in prison, but the final filing said that probation would be sufficient. 

Now, with the 2020 Presidential Election fast approaching, Barr’s DOJ has dropped the criminal charges against a pair of Russian companies at the heart of the 2016 election interference operation. Given the timing, it is likely that the move will go largely unnoticed in the US, as Americans struggle to deal with the sudden and unprecedented measures being taken in response to the Coronavirus.

But it won’t go unnoticed entirely. In Russia, this will be touted as proof that the DOJ doesn’t have evidence of Russian interference – or, even worse, that it does have evidence, but chose not to use it.

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