Justice Dept. Moves to Drop Charges Against Russian Firms Filed by Mueller

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department moved on Monday to drop charges against two Russian shell companies accused of financing schemes to interfere in the 2016 election, saying that they were exploiting the case to gain access to delicate information that Russia could weaponize.

The companies, Concord Management and Concord Consulting, were charged in 2018 in an indictment secured by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, along with 13 Russians and another company, the Internet Research Agency. Prosecutors said they operated a sophisticated scheme to use social media to spread disinformation, exploit American social divisions and try to subvert the 2016 election.

Unlike the others under indictment, Concord fought the charges in court. But instead of trying to defend itself, Concord seized on the case to obtain confidential information from prosecutors, then mount a campaign of information warfare, a senior Justice Department official said.

At one point, prosecutors complained that a cache of documents that could potentially be shared with the defendants included details about the government’s sources and methods for investigation, among its most important secrets. Prosecutors feared Concord might publish them online.

With the case set to go to trial next month, prosecutors recommended that the Justice Department drop the charges to preserve national security interests and prevent Russia from weaponizing delicate American law enforcement information, according to the official. The prosecutors also weighed the benefits of securing a guilty verdict against the companies, which cannot be meaningfully punished in the United States, against the risk of exposing national security secrets in order to win in court.

“Concord has been eager and aggressive in using the judicial system to gather information about how the United States detects and prevents foreign election interference,” prosecutors said in a motion filed in court on Monday. At the same time, the firm has tried to stymie the judicial process, including by concealing facts and documents and submitting a false affidavit.

Department officials denied that the decision to drop the charges was intended to dismantle Mr. Mueller’s work, noting that prosecutors are still pursuing charges against the 13 Russians and the Internet Research Agency.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia are still pursuing a separate case against a Russian national, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, who managed a multimillion-dollar budget for the troll farm efforts to sow division against Russian adversaries, including the United States. Ms. Khusyaynova, 44, worked for several entities owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch sometimes known as “Putin’s chef.” Mr. Prigozhin, a part owner of the Concord companies, was among the Russians whom Mr. Mueller secured indictments against.

The charges against Concord were part of the special counsel’s first major look at Russia’s election interference campaign in 2016. The companies were established to finance a wide-ranging scheme to steal the identities of American citizens and pose as political activists to exacerbate the nation’s divisions over immigration, religion and race to manipulate voters and inflame tensions, prosecutors said.

Investigators for the special counsel’s office determined that the Internet Research Agency and Concord Management and Consulting were tools of the Russian state, acting at the direction of the Kremlin. Their internet trolls, centered in St. Petersburg, Russia, aimed to suppress Democratic turnout by targeting African-American voters and sought to provoke voters on the right.

In January 2019, the federal government accused Concord of violating a protective court order designed to safeguard information shared among lawyers on the case. Prosecutors said a trove of nonclassified information they had turned over to Concord’s defense team had turned up on a website the previous October.

A message on a newly created Twitter account read: “We’ve got access to the Special Counsel Mueller’s probe database as we hacked Russian server with info from the Russian troll case Concord LLC v. Mueller. You can view all the files Mueller had about the IRA and Russian collusion. Enjoy the reading!”

Mixed in with a hefty portion of irrelevant material, the prosecutors said, were more than a thousand files matching those the government had turned over to the defense team in an information-sharing process known as discovery. Government computers storing the files had not been hacked, prosecutors said, suggesting that the source of the information was the defendant.

The companies also failed to produce documents subpoenaed by prosecutors and ignored orders to send a representative to court to answer questions.

The court record in the case shows a constant stream of pleadings by both sides, with nearly 400 docket entries since Concord was indicted. At least some of the back and forth has taken place out of public view because of classified filings or requests for protective orders filed by the government.

The trial team included Adam C. Jed, who had worked on Mr. Mueller’s team, and Heather Alpino, a Justice Department National Security Division lawyer who worked closely with the special counsel’s office. Both signed the brief filed on Monday. Last month, Mr. Jed withdrew from the Stone case after Mr. Barr intervened over prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation.

Officials in the National Security Division and the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington reviewed the recommendation and approved it before it was filed.

Testifying before Congress last summer, Mr. Mueller warned that the Russian effort to interfere with American presidential politics was still underway. “They’re doing it as we sit here,” he told the House Intelligence Committee. “And they expect to do it in the next campaign.”

As the 2020 campaign ramps up, American officials have said that Russia is again working to inflame racial tensions, including by inciting violence by white supremacist groups.

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