A Russian company that was among the first to be indicted in the U.S. investigation into alleged election meddling has accused Special Counsel Robert Mueller of inventing a "make-believe crime" while trying to criminalize "free speech" on the Internet.
In a court filing in Washington on May 14, the Concord consulting company headed by a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected Mueller's charge that it conspired to defraud the U.S. government by funding a covert social-media campaign during the 2016 presidential election aimed at helping get Republican Donald Trump elected president.
Concord is accused of providing funding for a Russian troll farm based in St. Petersburg that directed a social-media campaign that investigators say was aimed at sowing discord among Americans and at generating favorable opinions of Trump while denigrating his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Concord is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman known as "Putin's cook" because his catering business has organized banquets for the Kremlin. Prigozhin was placed on a U.S. sanctions list earlier this year.
Lawyers for the company said in their filing that the Justice Department has never before brought a criminal case accusing a foreign corporation of interfering in American politics "by allegedly funding free speech."
"The obvious reason for this is that no such crime exists in the federal criminal code," the lawyers wrote.
The lawyers said the case "has absolutely nothing to do with any links or coordination between any candidate and the Russian government" and thus does not carry out Mueller's mandate from Congress to pursue alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
"The reason is obvious, and is political: to justify his own existence the Special Counsel has to indict a Russian -- any Russian," the lawyers wrote, including as a footnote a line from the movie Casablanca in which a police captain instructs his officers, after a man is shot, to "round up the usual suspects."
Concord claimed that Mueller in his indictment provided no evidence that the company intended to break U.S. law, even though the U.S. campaign laws and foreign agent registration laws that Concord allegedly violated require the government to show intent to break the law.
Besides arguing that the government has no proof that Concord intended to defraud the U.S. government, the company's attorneys argued that a foreign company like Concord could not possibly have known the intricacies of U.S. election and foreign lobbying laws "that are unknown even to most Americans."
The indictment in February against Concord also named two other Russian companies and 13 Russian individuals. It was the first brought by Mueller directly charging Russians for alleged criminal offenses connected with their activities during the election.
Most of the Russians named in the indictment remain in Russia, and Putin has said he would never extradite them to the United States to face the charges against them.