First Criminal Case Filed Over Russian Interference in 2018 Midterms

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – A Russian national was charged Friday for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere in the U.S. political system, including the upcoming 2018 midterm election.

The Justice Department unsealed the criminal complaint soon after U.S. intelligence agencies, in a rare public statement, asserted Russia, China, Iran and other countries were engaged in continuous efforts to influence this year’s congressional and other elections.

The government alleges Elena Alekseevna Khusyanova, a resident of St. Petersburg, Russia, managed the books for “Project Lakhta,” a Russian umbrella effort funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and two companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, and Concord Catering.

According to the criminal complaint, which was filed on Sept. 28, Project Lakhta includes multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in the United States, members of the European Union, and elsewhere.

The Justice Department says documents Khusyaynova controlled include detailed expenses for activities in the United States, such as expenditures for activists, advertisements on social media platforms, registration of domain names, the purchase of proxy servers, and “promoting news postings on social networks.”

Between January 2016 and June 2018, the department says, Project Lakhta’s proposed operating budget totaled more than $35 million, although only a portion of these funds were directed at the United States.

Between January and June 2018 alone, the department says, Project Lakhta’s proposed operating budget totaled more than $10 million.

According to the complaint, since January 2016, fourteen separate bank accounts were used to distribute funds for Project Lakhta.

Each were accounts held in the names of Concord affiliate and with those funds, prosecutors claim members of the conspiracy – Khusyanova included – sowed discord in the U.S. by “[inflaming] passions on a wide variety of topics, including immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women’s March, and the NFL national anthem debate.”

“Members of the conspiracy took advantage of specific events in the U.S. to anchor their themes, including the shooting of church members in Charleston, South Carolina and concert attendees in Las Vegas, Nevada; the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally and associated violence; police shooting of African-American men” and more, the complaint states.

The key directive was to “aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population,” the complaint continued.

In one example from October 2017, prosecutors turned up guidance trolls were allegedly given, about how to maximize their agitation of certain groups. “If you write posts in a liberal group … you must not use Breitbart titles. On the contrary if you write posts in a conservative group, do not use Washington Post or BuzzFeed’s titles,” the complaint says.

In another piece of guidance, hackers were given instructions on how to target people of color who are also members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender community.

“Colored LGBT are less sophisticated than white, therefore, complicated phrases and messages do not work. Be careful dealing with racial content. Just like ordinary Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, colored LGBT people are very sensitive towards #whiteprivilege and they react to posts and pictures that favor white people …” the instructions said, according to prosecutors.

Khusyanova is the 27th Russian national charged with a crime connected to the election meddling.

President Donald Trump has often cast doubt on U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, as special counsel Robert Mueller investigates potential ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign.

But Trump recently accused China of meddling in the midterms, and Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech this month that Russia’s actions in 2016 pale in comparison to the covert and overt activities by China to interfere in the current elections and counter Trump’s tough trade policies against Beijing.

China has denied that it is interfering in U.S. affairs.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said recently that his country has no intention to interfere in the midterm elections in the U.S. or meddle elsewhere.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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