The Justice Department unsealed grand jury indictments on Tuesday against four U.S. citizens and two Russian nationals who are charged with attempting to execute wide-ranging influence operation to sow political discord, sway a local election in Florida and eventually meddle in the 2020 presidential election.
The indictment, which adds to an existing July 2022 case, alleges that Moscow-resident Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, founder of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, worked with at least two Russian intelligence officials between 2014 and 2022 “engaged in a years-long foreign malign influence campaign targeting the United States.”
Part of that operation included recruiting members of the political groups within the U.S., including the African People’s Socialist Party and the Uhuru Movement in Florida, Black Hammer in Georgia, and a political group in California.
According to DOJ, Ionov and his handlers with the Russian Federal Security Service secretly funded and directed the political campaign for an unnamed political candidate for local office in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2019. Ionov and the FSB also used the American political groups to create the appearance of American popular support for Russia’s annexation of territories in Ukraine, the U.S. government alleged, as well as other post-Russian invasion of Ukraine activity.
Also on Tuesday, the DOJ unsealed a criminal complaint against Natalia Burlinova, a Russian national living in Moscow and accused of conspiring with the FSB to recruit U.S. citizens from academic and research institutions to travel to Russia to participate in a public diplomacy program covertly funded by the Russian government.
“Russia’s foreign intelligence service allegedly weaponized our First Amendment rights — freedoms Russia denies its own citizens — to divide Americans and interfere in elections in the United States,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in a statement.
An indictment charging Ionov was initially unsealed in July 2022. Tuesday’s superseding indictment includes Moscow-based FSB officers Aleksey Borisovich Sukhodolov and Yegor Sergeyevich Popov. The indictment also includes four Americans: Omali Yeshitela, Penny Joanne Hess, Jesse Nevel and Augustus C. Romain, Jr.
Yeshitela, Hess and Nevel, all residents of Florida and St. Louis, Missouri, were involved with the APSP. Romain, Jr., also known as Gazi Kodzo, of Florida and Atlanta, was also involved with the APSP but also a founder of Black Hammer.
Ionov, Sukhodolov, Popov, Yeshitela, Hess, Nevel and Romain are charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government within the U.S. without prior notification, and each face a maximum penalty of five years in prison, according to the DOJ. Yeshitela, Hess and Nevel face additional charges of acting as agents of Russia in the U.S. without prior notification, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years.
“I’m encouraged by DOJ’s more concerted enforcement of Section 951,” said Gavin Wilde, a senior fellow for tech and international affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and also a former National Security Council director for Russia issues, referring to the law dealing with acting as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification. “While it’s unlikely any FSB officers or their agents involved will ever see the inside of a courtroom, this indictment will likely have a chilling effect on would-be US facilitators of foreign agents.”
Wilde added that Ionov and the other Russians “join a long line of Russian citizens, from the SVR illegals in 2010 to Mariya Butina in 2018 charged under this statute, so it’s clear that vigilance is warranted.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an August 2022 story described the Black Hammer Party as an “Atlanta-based extremist group that preaches violent revolution against the United States government.” The story reported that Romain, Jr., and another man were arrested in July 2022 on charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. Romain was additionally charged with forcible sodomy, the paper reported.
Messages sent to the APSP and the Black Hammer Party were not immediately returned.
CyberScoop previously reported that the political group in California was Calexit, a movement that advocated for California to split from the U.S. A leader of that movement, Louis Marinelli — who was not named in the indictment — moved to Russia and told RT News in 2016 that he could no longer live “under the American flag.”
The indictment alleged that an unindicted co-conspirator, who resided in Russia and California, received funding from Ionov for protests and political activities in the U.S., and traveled to the U.S. to engage in those activities. “[Ionov] funded these activities on behalf of the FSB, with the stated goal of causing turmoil within the United States,” the indictment reads.
In a July 2022 post on Substack, Marinelli wrote that insofar as he is the unindicted co-conspirator referenced in the indictment, he “never received funding from the Russian government or Mr. Ionov to engage in political activities, spread pro-Russian propaganda, or interfere in elections within the United States.” He had contact with Ionov prior to moving back to California in 2021, he wrote, but he did not know until the July 2022 indictment was unsealed that Ionov worked for or on behalf of Russian intelligence services.