A demonstrator holds a “Team Putin” sign outside federal court in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

U.S. Charges Russian for Conspiracy to Interfere in 2016 and 2018 Elections

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. charged a Russian woman with conspiring to interfere in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, marking the first criminal charges related to next month’s congressional midterm vote.

Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova of St. Petersburg, allegedly served as the chief accountant for an operation known as “Project Lakhta,” the Justice Department said Friday in a statement. The department identified the operation as “a Russian umbrella effort funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and two companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, and Concord Catering.”

The move comes as top U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies warn Americans about ongoing efforts by Russia, China and other foreign actors to interfere in the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections.

The charge announced on Friday centered on a conspiracy that included the creation of thousands of social media and email accounts that appeared to be run by U.S. persons as part of what the conspirators referred to as “information warfare against the United States.”

U.S. Charges Russian for Conspiracy to Interfere in 2016 and 2018 Elections

Referring to Khusyaynova, the Justice Department said, “The financial documents she 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 network.”

The complaint details the way in which the Russian propaganda effort sought to denigrate Trump’s opponents, including prominent members of the Republican party.

The filing highlights scripts written in 2017 by Russian organizers to be used in social media campaigns in the U.S. One script recommends that Senator John McCain be described as “an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly.”

Another goes after House Speaker Paul Ryan, suggesting that he be described as “a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness. Emphasize that while serving as Speaker, this two-faced loudmouth has not accomplished anything good for America or for American citizens.”

U.S. Charges Russian for Conspiracy to Interfere in 2016 and 2018 Elections

Khusyaynova, 44, remains at large in Russia, according to a U.S. official. She kept detailed financial documents that included itemized budgets for technology expenses, social media marketing, paying activists and advertisements on social media platforms, according to a criminal complaint that the U.S. unsealed on Friday.

The Russian Embassy in Washington dismissed the charges as “unfounded,” saying they’re aimed at providing justifications for new sanctions against Moscow. “We expected the upcoming mid-term elections to be used as a convenient pretext for further accusations against Russia, accusing us again and again of meddling,” the mission said in a statement on its Facebook page.

The criminal complaint unsealed Friday “demonstrates that our elections continue to be a target for our adversaries,” the Homeland Security Department said in a statement. “The U.S. will not tolerate interference in our democratic processes and DHS stands ready to defend our elections.”

Targeted messages aimed at sowing discord in the U.S. included issues such as immigration, gun control, race relations and the debate over National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem, according to the complaint.

The case appears to be an outgrowth of a larger case filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February, accusing Prigozhin and others of interfering in the 2016 election by pushing divisive social media campaigns that attacked Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

In that case, Mueller’s office cited examples of Russians who adopted online personas and used Twitter and Facebook posts to sow doubts about Clinton, urge voters to support Green Party candidate Jill Stein and galvanize support for then-candidate Donald Trump.

Concord Management and Consulting is fighting Mueller’s earlier charges in court. The company’s U.S. lawyer, Eric Dubelier of Reed Smith, won a significant legal point this week when the presiding judge ordered Mueller’s prosecutors to justify the charges they’d brought against Concord.

Of all the legal challenges that have been filed against Mueller so far by other defendants in his Russia probe, Concord’s attack on the special counsel’s charges is the first that appears to have a realistic chance of succeeding.

U.S. Charges Russian for Conspiracy to Interfere in 2016 and 2018 Elections

The conspiracy, which had a proposed operating budget of more than $35 million, “continues to this day,” according to the Justice Department statement.

U.S. Charges Russian for Conspiracy to Interfere in 2016 and 2018 Elections

“This effort was not only designed to spread distrust towards candidates for U.S. political office and the U.S. political system in general, but also to defraud the United States by impeding the lawful functions of government agencies in administering relevant federal requirements,” according to the department.

The criminal complaint unsealed against Khusyaynova doesn’t include any allegation that the conspiracy had an effect on the outcome of a U.S. election. The complaint also doesn’t allege that any American knowingly participated in the Project Lakhta operation.

Fake social media accounts and online personas controlled by Project Lakhta members have pushed out propaganda against both Democrats and Republicans, and even Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Last December, fake Twitter accounts called for people to take to the streets if Trump fired Mueller, according to the criminal complaint.

“Mueller is doing a fine job destroying himself,” according to one Twitter posting in the criminal complaint. “Keep the implosion coming Mueller.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.