Political News

Court begins to fill in details of mystery Mueller case

Posted January 31, 2019 4:37 p.m. EST

— Little by little, the mystery grand jury subpoena challenge from a foreign government-owned company related to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is revealing itself.

The company and the country that owns it are still unknown in the closely watched subpoena fight, but it's now clear that Mueller's office has been involved with the subpoena throughout the proceedings.

Wednesday night, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the US District Court for the District of Columbia released a redacted version of the proceedings at the trial court level. CNN had asked for this unsealed but redacted document more than two weeks ago, a request that contributed to Howell asking both the Justice Department and the mystery company to weigh in and propose redactions and subsequently release the information.

The newly public docket reveals little else than what's already known about the subpoena -- that Mueller's team sought information from a company wholly owned by a foreign government, and that company has been fighting the subpoena in the federal courts since August. But it does confirm that CNN's and other news outlets' previous reporting on the matter, which the special counsel's office has refused to comment on, is correct.

The names of the company and others involved in the case are blacked out throughout the 10 pages of court docket entries. The court also hasn't released the filings themselves and opinions that make up the case.

Also on Wednesday, First Amendment lawyer Ted Boutrous confirmed a CNN report in early January that Alston & Bird represents the entity fighting Mueller's subpoena. Boutrous represents the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which is seeking access to more details in the case, and he has communicated with the defense attorney as the case rises to the Supreme Court.

Brian Boone, the Alston & Bird attorney Boutrous communicated with about the case, did not return a request for comment. Alston & Bird hasn't formally acknowledged its involvement in the court fight.

CNN previously wrote that prosecutors from Mueller's office went to an hourlong sealed hearing in Howell's courtroom on September 11, 2018. The redacted docket shows this hearing led to Howell's first decision on the subpoena, that it was likely to lead prosecutors to records of commercial activity that directly affected the US and that would relate to a grand jury investigation.

On October 5, after the company lost an appeal, Howell called Mueller's team and defense attorneys from Alston & Bird to her courtroom for a second sealed hearing, according to the docket and CNN reporting from the courthouse that day. She said the company, now called a "witness" in the docket, was in contempt of court for not turning over information to the grand jury and would be fined $50,000 for each day it didn't comply.

The company days later appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, and after losing there pushed its appeal to the Supreme Court, which hasn't yet agreed to take the case.

The Supreme Court will discuss the possibility of hearing questions related to what's public in the case -- but not the subpoena challenge itself -- on February 15.

Even with the appeals courts weighing in, the company and the Justice Department, including Mueller's team, have continued to argue about the subpoena in Howell's court through this month.

First, after another loss at the court of appeals in December, the company appears to have argued that contempt was unenforceable and that its property -- presumably including some in the US, given that the company has a US office -- couldn't be seized under the fine.

Howell held a sealed hearing on January 10. Though CNN did not spot Mueller's team in the courthouse at that time, an SUV from Mueller's office ferried at least two prosecutors to the courthouse just before the hearing began.

How the company would be fined still wasn't settled until January 24, when Howell ruled against the company's argument about the fine.

No further details are available about the case.