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Beryl Howell’s Whack-a-Mole Grand Juries

Coverage of the May 29 court hearing that led Roger Stone aide Andrew Miller to testify before a different grand jury describes how his attorney, Paul Kamenar, tried to argue it would be an abuse of the grand jury, because Stone has already been indicted. But after prosecutors (including former Mueller prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky) explained why they needed Miller’s testimony ex parte, Howell upheld the contempt order. (See also CNN and ABC’s coverage.)

Miller, of St. Louis, was on speakerphone Wednesday for the hearing at which U.S. District Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell denied a last-ditch motion by Miller’s attorney, Paul D. Kamenar, to block his client’s grand jury appearance.

Kamenar argued it is an abuse of grand jury process for prosecutors to seek pretrial testimony from a witness about a subject who has already been indicted, also noting that Mueller has issued his final report.

[snip]

Howell said it was long-settled law that prosecutors can properly obtain grand jury testimony to develop additional charges against an indicted target, or to investigate individuals not yet facing charges. Prosecutors can also use evidence against Stone in his pending November trial if it was collected incidentally and not the primary focus of Miller’s questioning, she said.

“The government is not abusing the grand jury process in this case, and the government has need of Mr. Miller’s testimony,” Howell ruled from the bench, upholding her August contempt finding when Miller failed to testify.

“If Mr. Miller does not appear before the grand jury on Friday, he will be in contempt and there will be an arrest warrant issued for him. Do you understand, Mr. Miller?” Howell asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Miller answered over speakerphone.

Prosecutors told the judge in a sealed bench conversation about the ongoing matters in which they seek Miller’s help, but not before Kamenar said that in a May 6 email prosecutors confirmed that one question would regard “what work he did for Stone from 2016 on.”

Presumably, Howell would have known (because she has presided over Mueller’s grand jury from the start) that Miller would testify before a different grand jury.

We now know that Howell had a similar conversation over two months earlier in a hearing (starting at PDF 166) in the Mystery Appellant’s somewhat successful effort to withhold information the government wanted about a state-owned bank. At the hearing, DC Assistant US Attorney Zia Faruqui had replaced Zainab Ahmad as lead prosecutor on the issue (he had started to take over earlier in March, certainly by March 21).

Howell started the hearing by asking why the subpoena was still pending given that Mueller had announced the end of his investigation a week earlier.

Howell: [T]he first question I am going to ask the Government is in the last paragraph of their reply which is: What are we doing here? Why isn’t this whole matter over as of 5 p.m., March 22, when Mr. Mueller delivered his report?

Fauqui: Your Honor, I can say with absolute certainty that the case is robust, ongoing; we are working within our office. The matter was transferred back in fact to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We have met numerous times with agents. We have reviewed materials, and our plan is to go forward with our investigative steps. We are in constant communication with the special counsel’s office.

It’s very different, I think, to the outside world; but, within the Government, theoretically we are one Government. One AUSA may leave, one prosecutor; but, when there is a case of this import, there is no reason that it would stop because a separate focused matter has been presented with a letter and report.

In response, Howell makes it very clear that this subpoena — for which she would have seen abundant sealed description — was originally presented to her as part of the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, which leads her to be really confused about why the government would still need the information.

Howell: Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but this matter was presented to the Court as one part of the investigation into whether there was Russian influence with the 2016 election, presidential election; and that’s been resolved by the — at least the summary of the special counsel’s report. So there are other aspects of that investigation that led in other directions. So I thought this part — this particular subpoena and leg of the investigation was also related precisely to what Mr. Mueller said he resolved in his report delivered at 5 p.m. on March 22.

So are you saying that this is a different aspect of this investigation related to different inquiries than that?

Faruqui: Yes. That’s correct, Your Honor. I am happy to approach. I think it’s —

Howell: Well, there’s been nothing submitted that — in the Government’s opposition papers that provides any detail about how these records have continuing relevancy to something subject to investigation by the grand jury to warrant continued fines to coerce additional compliance, which we’re going to get to in a minute, or whether there is anything all relevant to an ongoing grand jury investigation from these records that the Government’s continuing to seek.

Faruqui then explains that this matter started in the DC US Attorney’s Office, got bumped to Mueller, and has now been passed back to DC.

Faruqui: So if we can have an opportunity now, or we can refer to portions of the ex parte prior affidavits of the special counsel, I think we can either now or file supplemental briefing to Your Honor to try to further elucidate that. Certainly, the special counsel’s remit, I think, allowed them to take this investigation in.

The investigation initially came into our office and was passed to the special counsel at that time because I think there was a question within the realm of their remit. However, I think it’s very clear I think the matter —

Howell: So are you saying that this investigation started with the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office, spent some time within the special counsel’s jurisdiction, so to speak, and is now being given back to the U.S. Attorney’s Office?

Faruqui describes the investigation as being very time consuming and resource-intensive.

Faruqui: That is correct, Your Honor. And it does in fact involve issues that have not or are in any way close to being resolved and very much is a live issue that requires, I think, a great deal of resources, time, and attention by the Government, which is why we believe the subpoena is in fact still a live controversy that requires, I think, a great of [sic] deal resources, time, and attention by the Government, which is why we believe the subpoena is in fact still a live controversy that requires contempt because it goes to the core of the question in this investigation.

Howell: All right. Well, before I got the Government’s opposition, I didn’t know whether the Government’s opposition was going to be, oh, forget the whole thing. I have read all of the ex parte filings, and I am puzzled.

Faurqui: We can supplement —

Howell: What’s still going on here?

Faruqui: We can certainly supplement, Your Honor, with an additional ex parte supplement that will go into greater detail explaining what is being investigated and how it is in no way resolved by what may or may not be in the Mueller report or in AG Barr’s letter to Congress and the public.

These are live issues that require immediate attention from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and from which the grand jury — because the grand jury matter is still alive and being thoroughly investigated, we require the Court to intervene and assist us as we try to force the contemnor to comply fully with our subpoena.

Howell then makes sure the government still is really using a grand jury and Faruqui — in a detail that probably parallels and precedes what happened with Stone’s case — explains that they’re still using the existing grand jury but plan to move onto a new one when the Mueller one expires.

Howell: So you are still presenting evidence to this grand jury that was being used by the special counsel’s office?

Faruqui: We — yesterday, anticipating that the grand jury may or may not — what its life cycle is, it’s a little unclear.

Howell: Well, I am very aware of its life cycle.

Faruqui: We are unaware. I apologize, Your Honor, Yes. It’s your grand jury; you certainly know.

We are trying to sort those issues out with the special counsel. However, we have reopened it yesterday in the grand jury, understanding that the current grand juries that are soon to expire; but with the intention that, when those expire, we will reopen a new one. We do plan to seek additional records, both in — and, potentially, additional testimony as well.

This exchange has significance beyond the Mystery Appellant matter, to Stone and (because the government insists there is are ongoing investigations pertaining to the stuff covered in Paul Manafort’s plea breach hearing) Manafort as well. This case might not even be considered a referral in Mueller’s report, given that it started in DCUSAO. But from Faruqui’s description — and Mystery Appellant’s invocations, at times, to only being bound by Presidential sanctions and turning this into a diplomatic incident — this is a very significant and serious investigation.

Howell, having read multiple secret filings that led her to believe this was about Russian interference in the US election, got really confused after reading Bill Barr’s 4-page memo declaring victory and then learning that something this big, that must, in some way, relate to Russian interference, is still pending.

Aside from being a testament to just how misleading Barr’s memo was, that such confusion was possible for someone privy to the details of the investigation should focus far more attention on the limited scope of Barr’s exonerations. They pertain just to Russian election interference (not, say, graft), and just conspiring with the Russian government (though, if it’s a Russian bank, the Mystery Appellant clearly counts as that). And even the election-related events continue only through the Transition, not afterwards.

The Mueller Investigation is over and Trump has declared victory, but it appears that what Mueller achieved was protecting significant aspects of it long enough to see them metastasize to new grand juries.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

The Supreme Court Has Already Agreed that the Mystery Appellant Caused a “Direct Effect” in the United States

I’d like to make a minor — but I think important — point about the DC Circuit opinion in the Mystery Appellant challenge to what is believed to be a Robert Mueller subpoena. Assuming that this is a challenge to a Special Counsel subpoena, then the Supreme Court has already agreed with Mueller — in dissolving a stay of financial penalties for blowing off a subpoena — that some company owned by a foreign country took an action outside the US that had an effect inside the US, in an investigation into what happened during an election.

This post will assume that this is a Mueller subpoena. Some of the evidence backing that assumption includes:

  • DC District Chief Judge Beryl Howell issued the original order; she presides over Mueller’s grand jury
  • A lawyer asked for Mueller’s latest sealed filing on the day a response from the Mystery Appellant was due
  • Greg Katsas recused from consideration of this case; he had said he would recuse on Mueller related issues
  • The secrecy for the hearing before the DC Circuit, and arguably the review process for this challenge, were exceptional
  • Mueller lawyers Michael Dreeben and Zainab Ahmad were seen returning to his office after the DC Circuit hearing

Judges David Tatel, Thomas Griffith, and Stephen Williams issued their order on December 18. The Mystery Appellant appealed to the Supreme Court, and over Christmas John Roberts took briefing on that appeal. Last week the Supreme Court declined to uphold the stay, effectively agreeing with the Circuit’s decision.

And that’s important, because a key part of the now-public (though still partly sealed) DC Circuit opinion explains how the presumed Mueller request overcomes the sovereign immunity of the company in question. The request must involve — among other things — an exception to sovereign immunity.

Taking section 1604 ‘s grant of immunity as a given, the government must check three boxes for the contempt order to stand. First, there must be a valid grant of subject-matter jurisdiction. Second, one of the Act’s exceptions to immunity must apply. And third, the contempt sanctions must be a permissible remedy. According to the district court, the government satisfies all three. We agree.

Mueller claimed that this qualified as an exception because the request involves an “act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere [when] that act causes a direct effect in the United States.”

Moving to those exceptions, in its ex parte filing the government steers us to the third clause of section 1605(a)(2). That provision denies immunity in an “action … based … upon an act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere [when] that act causes a direct effect in the United States.” Ordinarily, the Corporation would bear the burden to establish that the exception does not apply. See EIG Energy FundXIV, L.P. v. Petroleo Brasileiro, S.A., 894 F.3d 339, 344- 45 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (“[T]he foreign-state defendant bears the burden of establishing the affirmative defense of immunity,” including “‘proving that the plaintiff’s allegations do not bring its case within a statutory exception to immunity.”‘ (quoting Phoenix Consulting Inc. v. Republic of Angola, 216 F .3d 36, 40 (D.C. Cir. 2000))).

And because Mueller relied on an ex parte filing to make that case, all the judges involved — Howell, Tatel, Griffith, Williams, Roberts, and whoever else at SCOTUS reviewed this — relied on the argument that Mueller’s lawyers laid out about the request.

Here, however, the government relies primarily on ex parte evidence unavailable to the Corporation. We have repeatedly approved the use of such information when “necessary to ensure the secrecy of ongoing grand jury proceedings,” In re Sealed Case No. 98-3077, 151 F.3d 1059, 1075 (D.C. Cir. 1998), and we do so again here. But where the government uses ex parte evidence, we think the burden falls on the government to establish that the exception applies, and we will conduct a searching inquiry of the government’s evidence and legal theories as a substitute for the adversarial process.

In a sealed discussion of Mueller’s ex parte filing, the DC Circuit finds a “reasonable probability” that that section covers this subpoena. It goes further and states that it doesn’t have to decide what the gravamen of the subpoena is, which suggests that something about this request makes it very clear that the company both possess the records and that they are relevant to Mueller’s investigation.

The “gravamen” of a subpoena may be the mere fact that an entity possesses the documents in question. Alternatively, the “gravamen” may be related to the content of the records and why they may be relevant to the government’s investigation. Indeed, the correct approach may well vary with the facts of a given case. Here, however, we need not resolve that issue [redacted]

There’s some other redacted discussion that dismisses a claim made by the corporation that will be interesting for the history books. But the DC Circuit is clear that the request — as laid out in an ex parte filing presumably written by Mueller’s lawyers — clears the subject matter question.

None of this analysis tells us enough about the company for us to guess what foreign company it is. The WaPo says it is a financial institution. I happen to think that Qatar or the Emirates’ investment authority are the most likely candidates but that’s just an educated guess.

Still, if this is indeed a Mueller subpoena, given the topic of Mueller’s inquiry and his fairly clear discipline at staying within the scope of it, that nevertheless is a signifiant revelation. That’s because Mueller is investigating events relating to an election. And most acts by a company owned by a foreign country that cause an effect in this country — if they have some relationship with that election — would be illegal. It could be the payoff for a bribe. It could be a more direct expenditure associated with the campaign. It could be a payment associated with activities that occurred during the campaign.

Maybe it’s something far more obscure. But any of the obvious applications here would all implicate a foreign country influencing — directly or indirectly — the election. And SCOTUS has already reviewed that Mueller argument, and found it reasonable.

That doesn’t mean SCOTUS has reviewed the evidence the company has, it doesn’t mean the company will turn over the evidence (though it would already incurred something like $300,000 to avoid compliance), it doesn’t mean the evidence proves whatever crime Mueller has cited in demanding it.

But SCOTUS has, at a minimum, found Mueller’s argument that such evidence would be relevant to his criminal investigation reasonable.

Update: Added language to make what happened — SCOTUS dissolved the stay — technically correct.

Update: And SCOTUS is now debating whether to allow the Mystery Appellant to file cert under seal or not.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Updating the Mueller Docket: What Has Zainab Ahmad Been Working On?

I’ve been meaning for some days to update my running commentary on what Mueller’s prosecutors are doing.

But yesterday’s Mike Flynn filing made a point that I’ve been meaning to make: counterterrorism and international extradition expert Zainab Ahmad remains on Mueller’s team, but we’ve barely heard from her.

I’ve recently updated my own running docket (which is far too unwieldy to fit on a page anymore). It also includes a number of related cases:

  • Michael Cohen’s SDNY prosecution
  • Sam Patten’s DC prosecution
  • Maria Butina’s DC prosecution
  • Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova’s EDVA charges

I’ve also noted the departures of the prosecutors who have left (suggesting either that their part of the investigation is completed, or they’re bringing some part of it back to their home departments at DOJ to pursue).

One thing I’ve been following in recent Mueller activities is Jeannie Rhee’s seeming central role in what we’re seeing. If there’s a conspiracy-in-chief prosecution, she seems to be in charge of that.

Also of interest, Rush Atkinson appears to have ties to a seemingly disparate series of cases involving Russia: the IRA prosecution and related Pinedo case, the GRU prosecution. He’s also involved in both Michael Cohen’s Mueller prosecution and Jerome Corsi’s aborted cooperation. Notably, he’s not involved in the Andrew Miller subpoena, which may mean that he’s not involved in everything pertaining to Roger Stone. So his presence on a case may suggest a direct tie to Russians.

But perhaps the most interesting thing this docket shows is that, among the prosecutors (as distinct from the appellate specialists, though it’s unclear whether Elizabeth Prelogar is on the team for her Russian expertise as well as her appellate speciality or not), Zainab Ahmad is the only person whose work we’ve barely seen. While she has had a role in the Flynn cooperation, Brandon Van Grack (who’s in the process of transitioning back to his National Security Division home) took the lead on that.

As an experienced counterterrorism prosecutor normally located in EDNY (the district where JFK Airport is located), Ahmad is an expert in prosecutions involving extraditions (because of the JFK connection, many of those go through EDNY, and that’s where a lot of the important precedents are). Also of note, given the questions around whether there are two or three parts of a Mueller investigation on which Flynn cooperated, she’s an Arabic speaker.

We’ve not seen a substantive plea or charge related to what I’ll call the Middle Eastern graft (centered around, but not limited to, the Seychelles meeting Flynn attended), though we know that Mueller has spent a lot of time investigating it, and that’s an area where Flynn’s cooperation would be key. Given Ahmad’s skill set, it would make sense that she would be involved in those areas of the investigation.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.