WASHINGTON — A mystery company owned by a foreign country will face fines of $50,000 per day for refusing to comply with a federal grand jury subpoena, following a Supreme Court order.
The dispute involves a federal grand jury in Washington, DC, which subpoenaed a mystery company, seeking mystery information, and the case has been bouncing around the federal courts since August. Prior to Tuesday, there's been only one substantive — although brief — court order from the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit providing any insight into what is going on. Politico has reported that the dispute is tied to special counsel Robert Mueller's office, drawing significant attention to the secretive matter, but the special counsel's office has made no statement acknowledging its involvement.
On Tuesday, it was made public that the company has at least one US office, and the company was served with the subpoena at that US office.
The company sought to quash the subpoena in August 2018. The request was denied, the company still refused to comply, and it was held in contempt. In holding the company in contempt, and as the DC Circuit’s order stated, the district court imposed “a fixed monetary penalty to increase each day the Corporation fails to comply.” That amount, made public Tuesday, is $50,000 a day — although the penalties had been stayed previously pending appeal.
The company appealed, lost, and asked the Supreme Court to put the contempt order on hold. Chief Justice John Roberts temporarily granted a stay of the contempt order, as well as the accrual of the fines, so the court could receive a response from the opposing party — again, with no mention of what governmental entity it was that had obtained the grand jury subpoena.
Early Tuesday, the Supreme Court posted information that there was a further filing in the matter — a motion seeking to file a petition under seal that would be asking the justices to review the DC Circuit’s ruling itself in a fully briefed merits appeal. When that motion was made public, almost all of it was redacted. Although the filing was not noted on the Supreme Court’s docket until Tuesday, it was docketed on Monday and had, according to the filing, actually been submitted Jan. 3.
Then, however, the Supreme Court issued its order in the company’s stay request — denying the request and ending Roberts’s “administrative stay,” as the court called it. No justices noted disagreement with the decision. The decision, while not ruling out the possibility of a decision in the company’s favor in the sought merits appeal, does mean that at least a majority of the court did not believe the company had shown that it has a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of its challenge to the subpoena.
Hours later, the DC Circuit also issued a 28-page opinion further explaining the reasoning of its Dec. 18 decision upholding the contempt order and providing some additional information about the case.
After all of the movement Tuesday, it appeared that the $50,000 daily fine would start accruing as soon as the district court reinstates its contempt order. At that point, fines would accrue daily until the company complies. And because, according to the government, the company does “considerable business” at the US office where it was served with the subpoena, it would appear that the government would have a path to obtaining funds from the company if they do accrue.
That said, it is still not known what company it is, what the country is, who the federal prosecutor seeking the information is, or what information that prosecutor is seeking — or for what purpose.