What happens next in St. Petersburg case with links to Russian conspiracy?

Members of the Uhuru Movement say the FBI searched their property. But they have not been accused of a crime.
Law enforcement officials search the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave S. on July 29 in St. Petersburg.
Law enforcement officials search the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave S. on July 29 in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Aug. 12, 2022

Two weeks after law enforcement officials searched the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg, a federal investigation centering on connections to a Russian influence effort seems to have entered a second phase: the soft middle.

No arrests have been made. Any new developments in the investigation could happen in weeks, months, years or never.

While Uhuru members are believed to be among those referred to as unindicted co-conspirators in a Russian effort to sow discord in U.S. politics, only one man, a Russian, has been accused of a crime.

But the indictment against Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov offers a few clues about the investigation’s scope and where it might head next.

Tellingly, legal experts say, the document was signed by seven different federal prosecutors. A few of them are assigned to the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and public integrity sections. The divisions are based in Washington, D.C. The counterintelligence division typically handles cases having to do with national security and foreign relations, including espionage. The public integrity section deals with cases relating to government integrity, including bribery of public officials and election-related crimes. It’s an unusual lineup for a case that rose from Florida.

“It shows the Department of Justice is taking this seriously, which is not what you want if you’re a defendant,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor and senior managing director for Guidepost Solutions, an investigations consulting firm.

Related: FBI investigating Russian influence possibly linked to St. Petersburg Uhuru Movement

Ionov, who lives in Moscow, runs the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, an organization funded by that country’s government. The indictment accuses him of recruiting members of a St. Petersburg political group to act as illegal agents of Russia in the U.S. It also alleges that he controlled the candidacies of two group members who competed in local elections in 2017 and 2019.

Related: Uhurus ramped up their tactics in 2017. Was it related to July FBI raid?

The indictment references communications Ionov had with Russian government officials about the St. Petersburg group.

“The detail in the indictment is remarkable and it suggests that the U.S. government has cracked into internal Russian communications,” said John Fitzgibbons, a Tampa defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. “This would probably be either by electronic means or that there is a cooperator, basically a spy, helping the United States.”

Ionov is unlikely to ever answer to the accusations against him in a U.S. courtroom. Unless he leaves Russia, he’ll never be within the reach of American law enforcement.

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“What it does do is it limits his ability to travel,” Cramer said. “That individual is not going to be able to go to London anytime soon.”

The indictment is similar to those the Justice Department brought after the 2016 presidential election, which targeted several Russians who were part of what was known as the Internet Research Agency. It’s a Russian company that seeks to further Russian interests through online influence operations.

“One of the frustrating aspects of this, I imagine, for the Justice Department, is the individuals primarily responsible, the defendants, are beyond the reach of the United States,” said William Aceves, a professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego who specializes in international human rights and civil rights law. “Most of them are located in Russia, and Russia is not going to extradite those individuals to the U.S.”

The wave of public attention might serve a purpose.

“The Justice Department believes it’s important to publicize what they’ve discovered, and perhaps send a message to the Russians that they’re cracking down on these operatives,” Aceves said.

The indictment does not name the Uhuru Movement or their umbrella organization, the African People’s Socialist Party. It refers only to a group in St. Petersburg as “U.S. Political Group 1,” alleging that its members worked with a Ionov and that he exerted control over their activities. Five members or former members of the St. Petersburg group are referred to as unindicted co-conspirators.

While they’re not named, the descriptions match Uhuru leaders. And they have said publicly that the FBI served search warrants in late July for their property.

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

Omali Yeshitela, the founder and chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party, said in an Aug. 2 news conference that federal agents seized his cell phone, his computer and 40 years worth of archives related to the Uhuru Movement. He accused the government of targeting the group to “shut us up.”

“Everything that was said is a lie,” he said. “It’s a total fabrication.”

A factor for law enforcement to consider is how much of what the group was doing could be covered under the First Amendment.

“It’s a fine line between freedom of speech, freedom of expression versus committing a crime,” said defense attorney Bryant Camareno.

Given the public sentiment against Russia, a jury may not be sympathetic to the group, Camareno said. Jurors may also see the organization as a group of “rabble rousers.”

“One important factor is the old follow the money trail,” Fitzgibbons said. “So if Russian agents have provided monies or anything of value to anyone to do their bidding in the United States, then I would expect a prosecutor would argue that clearly crossed the line into illegal activity.”

Will they be charged? Nothing says they will be.

But their outspokenness could work against them if prosecutors pursue a case.

“The government loves it when defendants keep talking,” Cramer said. “It’s only going to hurt them.”

Times staff writers Jay Cridlin and Natalie Weber contributed to this report.