FBI investigating Russian interference possibly linked to St. Petersburg Uhuru Movement

Search warrants appear to be related to an indictment that was unsealed Friday against a Russian national.
An FBI agent is seen near the entrance to the Uhuru House Friday in St. Petersburg.
An FBI agent is seen near the entrance to the Uhuru House Friday in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published July 29, 2022|Updated July 31, 2022

Federal law enforcement officials appear to be investigating members of the Uhuru Movement in St. Petersburg for alleged connections to a Russian government official who prosecutors say directed U.S. political groups in a campaign to sow division, spread pro-Russian propaganda and interfere in U.S. elections.

Federal agents executed search warrants Friday morning at multiple locations, including the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave. S.

Related: Who are the Uhurus, the St. Petersburg group probed by FBI for Russian ties?

The searches appear to be related to an indictment that was unsealed Friday against a Russian national who is accused of working with the Russian government and intelligence services in efforts to interfere in U.S. politics.

The FBI and St. Petersburg Police Department investigate the Uhuru House Friday in St. Petersburg.
The FBI and St. Petersburg Police Department investigate the Uhuru House Friday in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, who lives in Moscow, orchestrated on behalf of the Russian government a yearslong “foreign malign influence campaign against the U.S.,” the Department of Justice said in a news release Friday. He worked with American political groups to inflame political discord and spread disinformation, prosecutors said.

The indictment refers to a group in St. Petersburg as “U.S. Political Group 1,” though it does not name the Uhurus specifically. At a news conference Friday, authorities declined to name the group or say where they had served three federal warrants this morning. However, St. Petersburg police confirmed Friday morning that federal agents served a warrant at the Uhuru House.

Later, Uhuru leaders held their own news conference.

“We can have relationships with whoever we want to make this revolution possible,” said Eritha “Akile” Cainion, later adding, “We are in support of Russia.”

Omali Yeshitela, a longtime leader of the St. Petersburg Uhuru Movement, said he and his wife were handcuffed and taken out of a home in St. Louis by agents showing guns Friday morning.

Yeshitela, who still owns property in St. Petersburg, denied taking money from the Russians, though he acknowledged he had visited Russia. The Uhuru Movement falls under the African People’s Socialist Party, which Yeshitela formed.

”They have accused us of taking money from Russia,” he said at a news conference Friday afternoon. “We’ve never taken (money) from the Russian government. But I’m not saying that because I’m morally opposed from taking money from Russians or anyone else who wants to support the struggles for Black people.”

He said the U.S. government was using his group as a “pawn” in its propaganda war against Russia.

”Don’t tell us that we can’t have friends that you don’t like,” he said.

Want breaking news in your inbox?

Want breaking news in your inbox?

Subscribe to our free News Alerts newsletter

You’ll receive real-time updates on major issues and events in Tampa Bay and beyond as they happen.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Targeting U.S. political groups

Ionov is the founder of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, an organization funded by the Russian government.

He used the organization to target political groups in the U.S. and other countries, including Ukraine, Spain, the U.K. and Ireland. The organization reached out to group leaders and paid for them to attend conferences in Russia, the indictment states.

“The purpose of the conferences was to encourage the participating groups to advocate for separating from their home countries,” the indictment states.

Ionov established “partnerships” with some U.S. separatist groups, according to the indictment. He exercised control of the groups, providing financial support through Russia’s national security service, and directed them to publish pro-Russian propaganda and information designed to foment political dissension and “promote secessionist ideologies.”

The indictment refers to four of the St. Petersburg group’s leaders as unindicted co-conspirators. Although they are not named, they include the group’s founder and chairperson, another leader who lives in both St. Petersburg and St. Louis, and two others who ran for local political offices in 2017 and 2019.

The indictment also describes a fifth person who served as the group’s secretary general until 2018. That year, the person left and formed a second group in Atlanta, which also engaged in activities to further Russian interests.

In May 2015, Ionov paid for the leader of the St. Petersburg group to travel to Russia to discuss future political cooperation, according to the indictment. For the next seven years, Ionov “exercised direction and control over senior members” of the St. Petersburg group. He used their leaders to foster discord in the U.S., spreading pro-Russia sentiments “under the guise of a domestic political organization,” prosecutors said.

In September 2015, the indictment alleges, Ionov again paid for the St. Petersburg group’s leader to attend a “Dialogue of Nations” conference in Moscow. When he returned to Florida, the leader made clear to group members that Ionov’s organization was an instrument of the Russian government and that they “did not disturb us.”

A week later, in an email discussion, the St. Petersburg group’s leaders wrote that it was “more than likely” that the Russian government was using Ionov’s organization to sow division within the U.S.

The FBI and St. Petersburg Police Department investigate the Uhuru House Friday in St. Petersburg.
The FBI and St. Petersburg Police Department investigate the Uhuru House Friday in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Ionov and “others acting at his direction” engaged in “agitprop” or “agitation and propaganda,” the indictment states. They would write and send articles featuring pro-Russia material to the St. Petersburg group, instructing them to publish them in their media outlets.

He had members of the group provide him detailed information about their activities. He then compiled the information the groups gave him into reports that he then gave to Russian Federal Security Service officers and other Russian government officials, the indictment states.

In 2016, Ionov funded a “four-city protest tour.” The tour supported a “Petition on Crime of Genocide Against African People in the United States,” which Ionov directed the group to submit to the United Nations, prosecutors said.

Interference in local elections

He also interfered in local elections. In 2017 and 2019, Ionov “monitored and supported” two of the St. Petersburg group’s members in political campaigns, the government said.

Before the 2019 primary election, Ionov wrote to a Russian government official that he’d been “consulting every week” on a St. Petersburg candidate’s campaign, according to the indictment. When the candidate advanced to the general election, a Russian Federal Security Service officer wrote to Ionov that “our campaign is kind of unique,” and “are we the first in history?”

Ionov later sent additional details about the election to the officer, referring to the candidate “whom we supervise.”

Uhuru-affiliated candidates ran for local office four times in 2017 and 2019.

Two of those candidacies belonged to Cainion, who spoke at Friday’s Uhuru news conference.

A reporter asked Cainion if she was the person referred to in the indictment as “unindicted co-conspirator 4.” The indictment describes this person as the group’s director of agitation and propaganda.

Cainion confirmed these details matched her. She would not say if she took money from Russia during her campaign.

“Russia is not in your community causing you to starve. Russia is not in your community pushing you out. Russia is not the St. Pete police department that killed TyRon Lewis in 1996,” she said, referring to an 18-year-old shot and killed by police. “It was not Russia, it was the U.S. government that did that.”

Cainion first ran for St. Petersburg City Council’s District 6 seat in 2017. In a crowded primary field, she came in sixth, with about 7 percent of the vote. That primary was distinguished by a two-vote margin between current council member Gina Driscoll, who came in second and would eventually win the general election, and Robert Blackmon, who came in third and was eliminated from the race. Blackmon went on to win a city council seat in 2019. He lost last year’s mayoral race to Ken Welch.

Cainion again ran for a council seat in 2019, this time for the neighboring District 7 seat. She advanced to the general election, where she was defeated by council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who took more than 80 percent of the vote.

Blackmon said the news prompted shock and disbelief in his political circles, and that it underscored the need for legislative focus on election integrity. It also made him ponder his 2017 campaign for city council, he said.

”It certainly makes you wonder what if, and also to what extent the influence was exerted,” he said. “The good news is Gina Driscoll is a good person, and she’s been a fine elected official.”

People in the local political community were surprised when the Uhuru movement didn’t field a mayoral candidate for last year’s election, Blackmon added.

Jesse Nevel ran for mayor in 2017 with the Uhuru movement’s endorsement. In an election that was largely a battle between then-incumbent Rick Kriseman and former mayor Rick Baker, Nevel placed third in the primary with less than 2 percent of the vote. But he was at the center of national attention when he became the subject of a racist tirade by another candidate, Paul Congemi, who told Nevel, who is white, to “go back to Africa.”

And in 2019, the Uhuru-backed activist Anne Hirsch ran for city council’s District 5 seat. She came in last among five candidates in the primary. Deborah Figgs-Sanders ultimately won that seat in a close race against Trenia Cox.

Former Mayor Rick Kriseman said Friday’s news had him reflecting on the 2017 election cycle, in which he said Nevel and his Uhuru backers struck an unusually contentious tone.

“There were a couple of debates, in fact one in particular where security actually escorted me and my family out,” he recalled. “It was certainly ratcheted up from anything I’d ever seen” from the movement.

He was outraged by the allegations that elections had been tampered with in the city he led for eight years, he said. But he was unsurprised that they apparently failed, at least in getting Uhuru candidates elected.

“I think maybe Russia miscalculated in choosing St. Petersburg,” he said.

Ionov maintained a relationship with the St. Petersburg group until March of this year, according to the indictment.

After Russian invasion of Ukraine

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the group repeatedly hosted Ionov by videoconference to discuss the war. During the meetings, Ionov falsely stated that anyone who supports Ukraine also supported Nazism and white supremacy, prosecutors said.

United States Attorney Roger B. Handberg addresses the media during a news conference Friday in St. Petersburg.
United States Attorney Roger B. Handberg addresses the media during a news conference Friday in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In a report to the Russian Federal Security Service, Ionov wrote that he had enlisted the St. Petersburg group to support Russia in the “information war unleashed” by the West, prosecutors said.

The indictment also alleges Ionov similarly controlled two other American political groups, one in California and the other in Atlanta.

He is charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government. He is not in American custody.

“The facts and circumstances surrounding this indictment are some of the most egregious and blatant violations we’ve seen by the Russian government in order to destabilize and undermine trust in American democracy,” David Walker, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Tampa field office, said during the noon news conference.

Located at 1245 18th Ave. S in St. Petersburg, the Uhuru House is the local headquarters for the International Uhuru Movement. The group is part of a “worldwide organization, under the leadership of African People’s Socialist Party, uniting African people as one people for liberation, social justice, self-reliance and economic development,” according to its website.

Eritha “Akile” Cainion alongside other members of the Uhuru Movement, led by African People's Socialist Party, speaks with the media outside the St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters Friday in St. Petersburg.
Eritha “Akile” Cainion alongside other members of the Uhuru Movement, led by African People's Socialist Party, speaks with the media outside the St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters Friday in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The Uhurus have a history of being critical of city leaders and the police department.

On Friday morning, 12th Avenue S and 18th Avenue S were closed off by multiple St. Petersburg police cars and multiple rows of caution tape. The Pan-African flag at the Uhuru house was blowing in the wind.

St. Petersburg police chief Anthony Holloway held a meeting before the news conference with local clergy to alert them to the coming announcement, said Rev. Kenny Irby, who works as a director of community intervention for the department.

”The chief was very clear that this was not an investigation done by the St. Petersburg Police Department,” Irby said.

Bishop Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church was one of several people invited to the meeting with police, federal officials and community members.

“They wanted to demonstrate that they were working with the community, and it’s not the FBI taking potshots at the Black community,” Sykes said.

The idea of political candidates working for the Russian government was “shocking,” he said, but he was not surprised by the idea that Russians would target a disgruntled community.

”It shows you how close to home things actually are,” Sykes said.

Times Staff writers Jack Evans, Zachary T. Sampson, Lawrence Mower and Michaela Mulligan contributed to this report.