Russian charged with conspiring to interfere in U.S. congressional elections

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. government on Friday charged a Russian national with playing a key financial role in a Kremlin-backed plan to conduct “information warfare” against the United States, including influencing next month’s congressional elections.

Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, becomes the first person indicted for attempting to interfere in the 2018 U.S. elections, according to a government official with knowledge of the investigation.

The complaint said Khusyaynova was the chief accountant for Project Lakhta, an operation started in 2014 and funded by Russian oligarch Evgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin and two companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering.

Using social media and other avenues, the conspiracy participants waged “information warfare against the United States,” attempting to sow distrust of candidates for U.S. political office and the U.S. political system, according to the complaint.

Prigozhin and the two companies were named in February in indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s separate investigation of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to boost eventual winner Donald Trump over his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

The Khusyaynova case is not being handled by Mueller because it includes activities related to the 2018 elections, which are not part of his remit, the government official said.

The case against Khusyaynova was unsealed in Alexandria, Virginia, on the same day that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies issued a statement expressing concerns about attempts by Russia, China, Iran and other foreign groups to interfere with Nov. 6 congressional elections, in which Trump’s Republicans are trying to maintain majority power in Congress, and national elections in 2020.

That statement was coordinated to coincide with the criminal complaint against Khusyaynova, a second U.S. official familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity.

The complaint says that in June Khusyaynova submitted to Concord a monthly budget of 114 million Russian rubles, including expenditures for advertisements on Facebook and to pay for “development accounts” on Twitter.

The complaint says it did find any evidence that Khusyaynova or anyone else involved in the conspiracy had any impact on the outcome of any U.S. election.

Khusyaynova is a resident of St. Petersburg, Russia, and is not in U.S. custody.

The complaint indicates that Russia’s campaign to sow discord in the United States continued even after Mueller’s indictments in February that named Prigozhin, Concord Management and Concord Catering among three entities and 13 Russian individuals.

Prigozhin has been dubbed “Putin’s cook” by Russian media because his catering business has organized banquets for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior political figures. He has been hit with sanctions by the U.S. government.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Justice Department, FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement on Friday saying they did not have any evidence that anyone went far enough to prevent voting or change vote counts. Some state and local governments, which run polling sites, have reported attempts to access their networks, but officials were able to “prevent access or quickly mitigate these attempts,” the statement said.

In July, Mueller’s office also indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers who were accused of hacking Democratic computer networks as part of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Makini Brice, Mark Hosenball and Jonathan Landay in Washington, and Nathan Layne in New York; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Bill Trott

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