Special counsel Robert Mueller's team scored a procedural victory Friday in its case against a Russian company accused of bankrolling a vast campaign to meddle in the 2016 election, successfully fighting back an effort to review the instructions given to grand jury before it indicted the company.
Federal Judge Dabney Friedrich rejected a request by the Russian company, Concord Management and Consulting, that asked her to examine the instructions provided to the grand jury. Concord accused Mueller's prosecutors of giving faulty instructions, tainting the grand jury's decision to approve charges.
Concord had sought the judge's review of the grand jury instructions so it could later build an argument alleging due process violations. The company plans to eventually file a motion to drop the indictment.
The judge also signaled that a protective order would ultimately be imposed in the case as the discovery phase begins and both sides start sifting through millions of digital records. Mueller's team had asked for a sweeping protective order that would restrict how Concord handles documents and what would get shared with the other defendants. But Friedrich said she preferred a middle-ground approach.
The proceedings played out at an hour-long hearing at the DC federal courthouse as a more prominent drama unfolded in the same building: the hearing to determine whether former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort would be sent back to jail after getting hit with new charges last week.
The company was indicted in February alongside two other Russian companies, a prominent Russian oligarch and 12 other Russians that worked for the firms. The indictment accused the companies of operating a Kremlin-backed troll farm that created and disseminated propaganda on US social media to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Concord has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy.
US-based lawyers for Concord, led by Eric Dubelier, argued that prosecutors needed to explicitly tell the grand jury that Concord knew the US laws and knew that its actions violated those statutes. But Friedrich noted that the defense never established, for sure, that the jury received instructions at all.
"I see no need to breach the secrecy of the grand jury," Friedrich said after peppering the defense with questions about their request. "Breaching the secrecy of the grand jury is not an easy thing to do."
Later in the hearing, Friedrich made it clear that there would be a protective order to regulate how the government provides discovery materials to Concord's lawyers. Mueller's team previously asked the judge to prevent Concord from sharing materials with its Russian co-defendants because of fears that the information could be used by Russian intelligence in future operations against the United States.
"The government has demonstrated good cause to protect some of the discovery," Friedrich said.
Friedrich, a Trump appointee, said she was "trying to get discovery off the ground" and instructed both sides to quickly reach an agreement, before the weekend, on how to handle non-sensitive documents. In a joint filing Friday afternoon, the two sides proposed an interim deal to share documents without putting national security at risk. As part of the deal, documents would be password-protected, Concord's lawyers would need to keep sensitive files off Internet-connected devices and Concord could not share these materials with anyone beyond their legal team.
But a lot of the materials include sensitive information, like stolen Social Security numbers or details that could identify people that are helping the government with its case. For this information, Friedrich told both sides to reach an agreement within 10 days or else she would come up with a deal on her own.
For the sensitive materials, Friedrich said she saw "areas of common ground" and said someone from the Justice Department should act as "firewall counsel" and review the documents on behalf of Concord. But Friedrich said the "firewall counsel" should not come from the special counsel's office.