A Russian who allegedly worked on funding online propaganda efforts to manipulate voters in the 2016 and 2018 elections was charged with a federal crime Friday as part of a wider conspiracy to hurt American democracy.
Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, Russia, is charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States for managing the financing of the social media troll operation that included the Internet Research Agency, which special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators charged with crimes earlier this year.
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Prosecutors who unsealed the complaint Friday say she aided the Russian effort to "inflame passions" online related to immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women's March and the NFL National Anthem debate from December 2016 until May 2018.
The social media efforts specifically focused on the shootings of church members in Charleston, South Carolina, and concert attendees in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally, which left one counterprotester dead, and police shootings of African-American men, the complaint says.
The criminal charge says the Russians' online manipulation effort focused on multiple political viewpoints and candidates, but frequently zeroed in on the Republican Party's most well-known leaders.
In one effort to spread an online news article about the late Sen. John McCain's position on a border wall to stop illegal immigration, an alleged conspirator directed others to "brand McCain as an old geezer." They also attempted to paint House Speaker Paul Ryan as "a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness" and as a "two-faced loudmouth."
They aimed other efforts at stories about Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pushed to "fully support" Donald Trump, and called Mueller "a puppet of the establishment," according to the complaint.
$35 million budget
The effort had an operating budget of $35 million, prosecutors say, and was allegedly funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin and his companies. Prigozhin has not responded to a criminal charge he faces from Mueller for funding the scheme before the 2016 election.
"The conspiracy has a strategic goal, which continues to this day, to sow division and discord in the US political system, including by creating social and political polarization, undermining faith in democratic institutions, and influencing US elections, including the upcoming 2018 midterm election," the criminal complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia said Friday.
The online scheme directed its proponents to "effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population," prosecutors quoted one member of the effort saying.
Khusyaynova also worked with Concord Management and Catering, another defendant in the Mueller probe, to take in funds. Concord is represented by lawyers in the US and is the only Russian defendant to plead not guilty so far.
Khusyaynova had not been previously charged with a crime.
Federal authorities issued a warrant for her arrest on September 28. But it had been kept secret for the three weeks since then so it would not derail "other government efforts to disrupt foreign influence efforts," a court filing released Friday said. Prosecutors did not elaborate.
Prosecutors say Khusyaynova oversaw the financing, budgeting and expense payments of the corporatized propaganda effort, called "Project Lakhta." The money came in from Concord, which received some of its funding from the Russian government to feed school children and the military, prosecutors allege.
The millions of dollars allowed the Russians to buy social media analytic services, secure server space and domain names, and plant online advertisements and to stage political rallies and protests in the US. Sometimes, the Russians would use fake Americanized names like "Bertha Malone" or "Helen Christopherson" on Facebook, or handles like "@TrumpWithUSA" "@swampdrainer659" or "@UsaUsafortrump" on Twitter. One Twitter account the group ran, @wokeluisa, amassed 55,000 followers in one year, tweeting about Flint, Michigan's drinking water crisis and encouraging voters to register in the 2018 midterm elections.
Project Lakhta's monthly budget frequently approached $2 million in the last three years.
Latest Russian charged in Mueller probe
The new case marks the 27th time a Russian has been charged with a crime related to 2016 election interference or by Mueller, whose mandate is to investigate those crimes.
In another open case, the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign and spreading those documents online to influence the election. A 26th Russian national was indicted in June alongside now-convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for alleged witness tampering.
Typically, criminal cases against Russian nationals hang in the court system with no progress after the initial charge, because the European nation does not extradite its citizens to the US when they are charged. The cases in effect allow the US to "name and shame" defendants, as court-watchers call the practice. The defendants are unlikely to ever appear in US court.
Russian company Concord Management and Catering's not guilty plea in the election propaganda case was an unusual pushback on these types of indictments. Concord's US-based attorneys are fighting the conspiracy charge and have so far unsuccessfully attempted to use the court to challenge Mueller's work and to gather information about the investigators' tactics.