Political News

Mystery company in Mueller-related case is wholly-owned by foreign government

Posted January 22, 2019 9:52 a.m. EST
Updated January 22, 2019 12:35 p.m. EST

— An attempt before the Supreme Court for a company to dodge a grand jury subpoena related to the Mueller investigation revealed a new twist Tuesday: that the company is wholly owned by a foreign government.

In essence, the foreign nation is fighting off the US Justice Department's attempt to collect information as it builds a criminal case.

The development comes in a redacted petition the country filed with the Supreme Court that was made public Tuesday.

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The case concerns an unnamed corporation that is fighting a subpoena request from a DC-based grand jury. Lower courts have ruled that the company must turn over the information and imposed a $50,000 fine for every day it failed to do so following the appeal.

CNN previously reported that prosecutors from the special counsel's office were involved in the case at its early stages, suggesting that special counsel Robert Mueller sought the information from the company for grand jury proceedings related to his criminal investigations. The case then continued through the court system with an unusual amount of secrecy around it, so that even the lawyers involved could not be seen at a later hearing.

In ruling against the company, the appeals court said the request fell within an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that limits foreign governments from being sued in US courts. The court also held that the company had not shown that its own country's law bar compliance.

Overall, the country argues to the Supreme Court that a ruling forcing it to turn over information to the US in a criminal investigation will upset international diplomacy.

"The D.C. circuit's parade of horribles finds no support in U.S. history. Since America's founding, foreign states have been immune from American criminal jurisdiction, and yet the United States is not overrun with criminal syndicates backed by foreign states," the attorneys for the foreign country wrote.

Regarding hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines it will have to pay for noncompliance, "The conflict is real and, like the other questions presented, has ramifications for America's relationships with other countries," the filing adds.

One of the firms involved in the challenge is Alston & Bird, CNN has reported, a firm that has previously represented Russian interests, including working for a Russian oligarch and a contractor of the Russian government.

After receiving the grand jury subpoena around summer 2018 and refusing to turn over the information, a trial-level federal judge held the company -- meaning the country, too -- in contempt of court. The company then lost several attempts it made to appeal the decision, until it finally reached the Supreme Court.

At one point during the earlier court proceedings, as the company tried to fight the subpoena, the country that owned it argued it should "not have to suffer the indignity of a contempt order," according to its Supreme Court brief.

Still, it lost before the appellate court for the DC Circuit and was fined $50,000 for each day it didn't comply with the subpoena. Last week, the Supreme Court denied an emergency request from the company to freeze the financial penalty, pending appeal.

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Steve Vladeck, a CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law, said the ruling could mean the court will eventually rule against the company.

"All the court is doing is allowing the corporation to file their full appeal under seal, with a redacted version for the public, without any suggestion of how the Justices are likely to rule on that appeal," Vladeck said. "Indeed, the fact that the justices already refused to put the lower-court rulings on hold strongly implies that the court will turn the corporation's case away once it is fully briefed."