Four Americans affiliated with the African People’s Socialist Party and Uhuru Movement have been charged along with three Russians for conspiring to covertly sow discord in U.S. society, spread Russian propaganda, and interfere illegally in U.S. elections. An indictment was unsealed on Tuesday, adding the four U.S. citizens and two Russians 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 indictment charges the four Americans, Penny Joanne Hess, Jesse Nevel, Augustus C. Romain Jr, and Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the U.S.-based organization, 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.
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.
The indictment also 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.
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.
“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.
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.
The Justice Department also 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.
The indictments come amid ongoing concerns over Russian interference in U.S. elections and efforts to sow division within American society.