WASHINGTON (CN) - Bringing the first indictment directly related to Russian election meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russian individuals and three organizations with illegally plotting to sow political discord and sway the election for then-candidate Donald Trump.
The 37-page indictment says the named individuals began conspiring in 2014 to interfere in the American political system, and used false identities to spread divisive political material on social media.
Using "fraud and deceit," according to the indictment, the defendants failed to disclose election expenditures or to register as foreign agents. They also used false statements to obtain visas, held political rallies using false American identities, and "solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates," the complaint states.
"Some defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities," the complaint says.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein emphasized at a news conference Friday that the indictment does not include allegations that any Americans were involved in the Russian effort. The special prosecutor also has not asserted the alleged plot played any role in the outcome of the election.
Around June 2014, the indictment alleges, the Internet Research Agency started operating through other Russian entities to carry out online "information warfare.” With an operating budget equivalent to millions of U.S. dollars, the agency allegedly used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to target U.S citizens.
The other two entities named as defendants are Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering.
Concord allegedly funneled money into the operation, which was dubbed "Project Lakhta," by labeling the funds as designated for “software support and development." Fourteen affiliate bank accounts were used to further conceal the source of the payments, according to the indictment.
The charged individuals are Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, Mikhail Ivanovich Bystrov, Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova, Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva, Sergey Pavlovich Polozov, Maria Anatolyevna Bovda, Robert Sergeyevich Bovda, Dzheykhun Nasimi Ogly Aslanov, Vadim Vladimirovich Podkopaev, Gleb Igorevich Vasilchenko, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, and Vladimir Venkov.
Rosenstein said the intent of the alleged conspiracy was to "defraud the American people" and spread distrust of both candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign, as well as in the nation's political system.
"This indictment serves as a reminder that people aren't always who they claim to be on the Internet," Rosenstein said.
Mueller’s team unveiled the indictments just a day after CNN reported that the special prosecutor is on the verge of a plea deal with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates.
Alongside former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Gates was charged last year with conspiracy, money laundering and failure to register as a foreign agent.
Although Mueller was tasked with investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, the charges against the two men pertain to activities outside of the Trump campaign.
Mueller has also obtained guilty pleas from two additional Trump associates that are directly related to the 2016 election. George Papadopoulos, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, was charged in a sealed indictment for lying about his contacts with Russian officials.
About a month after disclosure of the Papadopoulos plea, Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn admitted that he had lied to federal agents about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Weighing in via email, Harvard law professor Alex Whiting said that the new indictments are important because, up until now, the details about Russian interference in the presidential election were limited to intelligence reports.
“Now Mueller is providing specific information about how this was done,” said Whiting, who served as the prosecutions coordinator at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
“I think these indictments make it much more difficult for Trump to shut down the Mueller investigation,” Whiting added. “The indictments establish that the investigation is not a ‘witch hunt’ as Trump has repeatedly alleged. Further, it seems likely that these indictments capture just part of the story. If Trump tries to shut down the investigation now, it will be clear to everyone that he is terminating a real and substantial investigation.”
It is still uncertain, Whiting also emphasized, whether Mueller will bring collusion charges, “that is charges against U.S. citizens for encouraging or aiding and abetting the Russian interference.”
Trump took to Twitter in the afternoon Friday to distance his campaign from Mueller’s investigation.
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President,” Trump tweeted. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”
Though Trump did not announce his candidacy for the last election until June 2015, his decades-long flirtation with the office even included an unsuccessful presidential run in 2000.
Also on Friday, the Justice Department revealed a California man has pleaded guilty to unwittingly selling bank accounts to Russians meddling in the U.S. elections.
Richard Pinedo of Santa Paula pleaded guilty earlier this month to using stolen identities to set up bank accounts that were then used by the Russians. A Justice Department spokeswoman says Pinedo did not know at the time he was dealing with Russians.
According to the plea deal, Pinedo faces 12 to 18 months in prison and a fine ranging from $5,000 to $55,000. The sentencing judge has the final say on both, however.
Pinedo’s plea deal is the third in Mueller's continuing Russia probe.
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