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Russian ex-Twitter employee says pricey gifts and close relationships were common at Twitter

A policy that any gift over $100 had to be reported was rarely if ever enforced, the former employee testified Tuesday.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The Russian counterpart of an ex-Twitter employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia testified Tuesday at his former colleague’s trial that the social media giant expected its media partnerships managers to try to please high-profile users to boost Twitter’s revenue.

Alexey Shelestenko, a dual U.S.-Russian citizen who now lives in Russia, worked with Ahmad Abouammo from 2013 through 2015, when Abouammo departed Twitter. At the time, they were the only media partnerships managers in their respective regions, where they helped big names in government, news and entertainment obtain blue-badge verification for their accounts and promote themselves on the platform. The company had a name for these users: “Very Important Tweeters.”

Shelestenko said the goal was to build relationships with notable figures and get them to use Twitter more. “A media partnerships manager was someone who was working with individuals and organizations that Twitter thought were of value to platform and to the users," he testified. "I was responsible for Twitter in Russia. The more successful I was at my job of talking to our media partners and getting them to tweet more, the more content it would get. The more tweets, the more advertising Twitter could sell and it would get more revenue."

“Does that mean you were expected to work with the Russian government?” Abouammo’s attorney Angela Chuang asked, to which Shelestenko answered “yes.”

Abouammo’s attorneys offered Shelestenko’s testimony to bolster their argument that Abouammo, who managed for media partnerships in the Middle East, was merely doing his job.

Internal Twitter documents displayed to the jury Tuesday showed Twitter expected its managers to be the "key contributor of growth” in their regions, which in Abouammo’s case meant cultivating relationships in Saudi Arabia, one of the top 10 markets for Twitter by number of users.

Shelestenko said he was expected to work with members of the Russian government, including President Vladimir Putin.

"Did you personally agree with every policy of the Russian government?” Chuang asked.

“I did not,” Shelestenko answered.

“So even if you didn't agree with all the government's policies, were you still expected to work with people in the Russian government?” she asked.

“I was,” he replied.

“And was Ahmad expected to work with people in government?” Chuang asked.

“Yes,” Shelestenko said.

Shelestenko said managers would meet in person with VITs whenever possible, and that “it was a very important part” of developing relationships.

Expensive gifts were also customary. Though Twitter had a policy that any gift valued at over $100 had to be reported, Shelestenko said it was rarely followed. “I got a signed soccer ball from a soccer team, a signed jersey from another soccer team," Shelestenko said. "I got to go to a few concerts that were organized by musicians that we were helping at Twitter.” He said he never reported them to management.

When a box of gaming gear showed up at Twitter’s San Francisco office, a token of appreciation from a gaming equipment manufacturer after he helped them obtain blue checkmark verification for some of their key Twitter accounts, Shelestenko testified that he “gave it away to kids who were into gaming" after his manager said he could do whatever he wanted with it.

"Do you recall any partner who reported gifts?" Chuang asked, to which Shelestenko answered, "No, I do not."

His former colleague Abouammo is in trouble for receiving more lavish gifts. Prosecutors say he received $300,000 and a luxury watch after he transferred confidential Twitter user data behind certain dissident accounts to a Saudi official in late 2014 and early 2015.

He faces charges of acting as a foreign agent without notifying the U.S. government, wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering, and fabricating evidence to cover up his alleged crimes. The government’s theory leans heavily on the conspiracy part of the case and also implicates Ali Alzabarah, another Twitter employee who allegedly accessed even more accounts than Abouammo and fled to Saudi Arabia after he was caught in 2015.

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Prosecutors say Alzabarah became a mole for Bader Al-Asaker, a top aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and Ahmed Almutairi, also called Ahmed Aljbreen, a Saudi social media strategist who claimed to have ties to bin Salman.

Abouammo met Al-Asaker, who is also referred to as Bader Binasaker, when he toured Twitter’s headquarters in June 2014. The pair later met in London on Dec. 5, 2014, where they allegedly discussed @Mujtahidd, the handle of an anonymous activist and rumored royal insider who tweets gossip and criticism of the Saudi royal family. Abouammo is accused of accessing the account’s confidential information around 20 times.

FBI Special Agent Letitia Wu testified Monday that she found no written correspondence among thousands of pages of texts and emails unearthed during the investigation that show Abouammo had actually transferred the information to Al-Asaker.

Back on the stand early Tuesday, she clarified the records, which include Twitter direct messages, indicated that the two had communicated via the encrypted chat platform WhatsApp. She testified that Abouammo also said that the two exchanged WhatsApp messages when she interviewed him in 2018. Because the messages are encrypted, she said, WhatsApp could not see or reveal their contents to the government even if they were subpoenaed.

Shelestenko said it was common practice for media partnerships managers to communicate over WhatsApp, Skype, Google Voice, or whatever platform the VIT chose.

When Chuang asked Shelestenko why he used so many forms of communication, he said, “As a media partnerships manager, I was expected to stay in touch with my media partner and make sure they were happy. I was expected to be very responsive.”

He said Twitter also used the buzzwords “proactively" and "reactively” to describe two ways of pushing high-profile figures to use the platform. “To tweet proactively was to voice your opinion about something before anyone speaks for you,” he said. “Reactively would mean to respond to a tweet about you or aimed at you. You were basically answering or responding.”

On Monday, the jury saw photographs of Abouammo’s Twitter direct messages from March 2015, where Abouammo said to Al-Asaker, “Proactive and reactively we will delete evil my brother.” In response, Al-Asaker sent the thumbs up emoji.

The defense has also portrayed Al-Asaker’s gift of a Hublot watch and $300,000 — doled out in $100,000 increments — as largely innocuous. Abouammo’s legal team spent the better part of last week trying to hunt down Ana Carmen Neboisa, who works for the U.S. Saudi Business Council in Washington D.C. and purportedly received several gifts from Al-Asaker.

Originally a witness for the prosecution, the government revealed to the defense that they did not intend to call her as planned since she had contracted Covid-19. U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, who is overseeing the trial, allowed the defense to subpoena her, saying there was some exculpatory value to her testimony and that the prosecution should have given the defense more notice before sending her home to D.C.

Visibly ill with a wracking cough, Neboisa took the stand Tuesday and aknowledged receiving a $9,985 gift from the Mohammed bin Salman Foundation “Misk” and $20,000 from Al-Asaker. She denied receiving several bracelets, a purse, a pearl necklace, stud earrings and a black leather Movato watch from Al-Asaker.

The denial forced the defense to re-call Agent Wu, who confirmed that Neboisa had told her in an interview on June 24, 2022, that she had received those gifts.

The defense is expected to wrap its case Wednesday, and both sides have agreed to hold closing arguments Thursday.

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