ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — Federal and local officials alleged Friday that St. Petersburg’s Uhuru House was influenced by Russian intelligence to spread propaganda and influence local elections.
During a noon press conference, officials alleged that Aleksandr Ionov, a Russian national who served as the president of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, worked on behalf of Russian Federal Security Service to use political groups across the United States to spread pro-Russia propaganda and interfere with local elections.
“Through these influence operations, Russia attempts to shape foreign perceptions and to influence populations in a number of ways,” U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg said.
One of the groups mentioned in the indictment against Ionov was a St. Petersburg group, later identified as the Uhuru House, which is run by the African People’s Socialist Party.
A spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg Police Department told 8 On Your Side that a federal search warrant was executed Friday at the Uhuru. According to FBI Special Agent David Walker, three search warrants in the city to collect evidence in their indictment.
“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,” Walker said.
The U.S. Department of Justice said that for seven years, Ionov worked with at least three other Russian officials in its “malign influence campaign” against the United States. Ionov and his collaborators used three groups in Florida, California, and Georgia for their goals, according to the DOJ.
“As court documents show, Ionov allegedly orchestrated a brazen influence campaign, turning U.S. political groups and U.S. citizens into instruments of the Russian government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division in a statement. “The Department of Justice will not allow Russia to unlawfully sow division and spread misinformation inside the United States.”
Handberg said Ionov committed 50 specific acts in the seven-year influence campaign, as detailed in a 24-page indictment against the Russian national.
The attorney said Ionov reached out to a candidate for a local office in St. Petersburg in 2017, which included financial support. Handberg said Ionov would attempt to influence another St. Petersburg election in 2019.
“Ionov stepped his efforts to interfere in St. Petersburg, Florida, elections, reporting to the FSB that he had been consulting with a candidate every week and that he had personally sent money to the campaign as well as participated in a campaign fundraising event,” he said.
Handberg also said Ionov gave the FSB a video of the candidate’s speech and reported on the candidate’s percentage of votes in the primary election.
“In September of 2019, Ionov’s FSB handler referred to the candidate’s campaign as ‘our election campaign,’ and Ionov referred to the candidate as the candidate whom ‘we supervise,’ the U.S. attorney said.
While federal officials did not name the 2017 candidate, the bio page for Akilé Anai, director of agitation and propaganda for the African People’s Socialist Party, said she ran for St. Petersburg City Council in 2017 on a platform of reparations. Anai also confirmed her candidacy in 2019 to reporters in a press conference responding to the FBI allegations.
The indictment also listed another co-conspirator as someone who ran for an office in St. Petersburg in 2017 as well.
When asked directly if she took funds from Russians, Anai said she would not answer the question. However, she said her group would ally with any own who would oppose U.S. imperialism and colonialism.
“I detest the U.S. government, and it does to African people on a daily basis,” Anai said.
She was also asked if the party thought they were being used, she said it was insulting that the party can make decisions for itself.
Officials said Ionov and the FSB also used the political groups to spread pro-Russia propaganda following the invasion of Ukraine.
“On Feb. 24 of this year, the same day that Russia announced its invasion of the Ukraine, Ionov reached out to leaders of the St. Petersburg group to inform them of the invasion,” Handberg said. “Ionov later told the FSB that he had asked the St. Petersburg group for assistance in the information war unleashed by the West.”
Handberg continued to say that the St. Petersburg group was used to host Ionov in a video conference meant to spread Russian propaganda to an American audience. He said Ionov said that anyone who supported Ukraine supported Nazis and white supremacy.
A search of the Burning Spear, the news website for the African People’s Socialist Party, revealed articles that were featured or written by Ionov. One article showed Ionov pictured with the party’s chairman, Chairman Omali Yeshitela. The indictment listed the group’s chairman, who lives in Missouri, as a co-conspirator.
Yeshitela said in his own press conference that the party’s Uhuru House solidarity center in St. Louis, Missouri, were also searched by the authorities.
The DOJ said the FSB used the other groups for difference goals.
U.S. Political Group 2, which is based in Atlanta, was used to protest in front of a social media company’s headquarters for restricting content that supported the invasion of Ukraine, and U.S. Political Group 2 was used to promote the secession of California from the United States, according to the DOJ release.
“This indictment is just the first of our indictment, but it will not be our last,” Walker said.
Ionov was charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government, according to the DOJ.
Ionov could spend a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison if he is convicted on the charge.