By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Russian company accused by U.S. prosecutors of funding a propaganda operation to tilt the 2016 presidential election in President Donald Trump's favour and stir disharmony in the United States pleaded not guilty on Wednesday at a court hearing.
Concord Management and Consulting LLC is one of three entities and 13 Russian individuals indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office in February in an alleged criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the U.S. race, boost Trump and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
The indictment said Concord is controlled by Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, who U.S. officials have said has extensive ties to Russia's military and political establishment. Mueller's indictment said Concord controlled funding, recommended personnel and oversaw the activities of the propaganda campaign.
"We plead not guilty. We exercise the right to a speedy trial," the company's defence attorney Eric Dubelier said in the arraignment before Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey in federal court in Washington.
Prigozhin, also personally charged by Mueller, has been dubbed "Putin's cook" by the Russian media because of his catering business that has organised banquets for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior political figures. He has been hit with sanctions by the U.S. government.
Mueller's indictment said the Russian defendants adopted false online personas to push divisive messages, travelled to the United States to collect intelligence and orchestrated political rallies while posing as Americans. Moscow has denied meddling in the election.
Mueller also is investigating whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia and whether the president has unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe. Trump has denied collusion and obstruction, calling Mueller's investigation a "witch hunt."
Russia does not have an extradition agreement with the United States, making it difficult to apprehend the Russian defendants. Concord last month revealed in a court filing it had retained U.S.-based attorneys Dubelier and Katherine Seikaly of the law firm Reed Smith to defend it.
Mueller's office tried unsuccessfully to win a delay in the arraignment, saying it was unsure if Dubelier and Seikaly were authorized to represent Concord because the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia had declined to accept a court summons.
In court filings, they took issue with questions from Mueller's office about which corporate representative would appear in court for Concord and who was paying their legal fees.
The judge set a status hearing for May 16.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham)
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Updated Date: May 10, 2018 01:06 AM