ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Four Americans affiliated with a Black empowerment and political organization have been charged along with three Russians with conspiring to covertly sow discord in U.S. society, spread Russian propaganda and interfere illegally in U.S. elections, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday.
The U.S. citizens and two Russians were added to an existing case in Tampa, Florida, federal court involving Aleksandr Ionov, described by prosecutors as the founder of a Moscow-based organization funded by the Russian government to carry out a clandestine influence campaign in the U.S.
The four Americans are all part of the African People's Socialist Party and Uhuru Movement, which has locations in St. Petersburg, Florida, and St. Louis. Among those charged is Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the U.S.-based organization — which was raided by the FBI last summer when Ionov was originally charged.
“Russia's foreign intelligence service allegedly weaponized our First Amendment rights — freedoms Russia denies to its own citizens — to divide Americans and interfere in elections in the United States,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department's National Security Division.
“The department will not hesitate to expose and prosecute those who sow discord and corrupt U.S. elections in service of hostile foreign interests, regardless of whether the culprits are U.S. citizens or foreign individuals abroad,” Olsen said in a news release.
Yeshitela and three other U.S. citizens — Penny Joanne Hess, Jesse Nevel and Augustus C. Romain Jr — are charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Hess, Yeshitela and Nevel are also charged with impersonating agents of a foreign government. Ionov and the other two Russians, who remain in their country, face the fraud conspiracy charge.
Court records did not list attorneys for any of the seven defendants, and it wasn't immediately clear if they have been arrested. An email seeking comment was sent to the African People's Socialist Party, which has previously denied working covertly for Russia or that any members committed a crime.
Prosecutors said Ionov operated an entity called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia that was used to carry out its U.S. influence efforts, overseen by the Russian intelligence service known as the FSB. They recruited U.S.-based organizations to help sway elections, make it appear there was strong support in the U.S. for Russia's invasion of Ukraine and backing efforts such as a 2015 United Nations petition to decry the “genocide of African people” in the U.S., according to the indictment.
Among other things, the indictment charges that an unnamed candidate for local office in St. Petersburg received clandestine funding and political strategy from the group. Ionov and another Russian said at one point that their Florida effort would extend to the 2020 presidential campaign, which they called the “main topic of the year.”
The Uhuru group did have a candidate who ran unsuccessfully for St. Petersburg City Council in 2019, Eritha Akile Cainion. who is not charged in the indictment. She held a news conference in 2022 in which she defended Russia, saying “world colonial powers have been collaborating against Russia" for more than a century.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, a Democrat, called the allegations troubling. “It is important to underscore that the City of St. Petersburg does not support, condone or tolerate any foreign government engaging in activities to undermine or influence our elections,” Welch said in a statement.
Yeshitela, the indictment adds, traveled from Tampa to Moscow in 2015 to meet with Ionov and other Russians to “communicate on future cooperation,” according to an Ionov email. What followed was covert Russian funding and support for various activities in the U.S. until summer 2022, including demonstrations at the California and Georgia state capitols and at an unnamed social media company in San Francisco.
Much of the alleged cooperation involved support for Russian's invasion of Ukraine. In March 2022, Yeshitela held a news conference in which he said the “African People's Socialist Party calls for unity with Russia in its defensive war in Ukraine against the world colonial powers.” He also called for the independence of the Russian-occupied Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
In addition, the Justice Department announced a separate indictment in Washington charging Russian national Natalia Burlinova with conspiring with Russian intelligence to recruit U.S. academics and researchers to attend programs that advanced Russian interests. Burlinova concealed that her efforts were funded by the Russian government, prosecutors said.
It was not immediately clear Tuesday if Burlinova has an attorney to speak on her behalf.