Courts

CalExit protest in Sacramento was funded by Russian agitprop puppeteer, DOJ says

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A portion of a grand jury indictment recently unsealed in Florida has revealed that a Russian agitprop puppeteer allegedly funded a CalExit protest held at the state capitol building in 2018 “with the stated goal of causing turmoil to the United States.”

The protest, only referred to in the indictment as “a demonstration on behalf of US Political Group 3”, was revealed to be an event held in 2018 by the Yes California PAC – a group that advocates for California to secede from the rest of the United States, according to records released by the California Highway Patrol.

The group, originally with a few hundred volunteers, shot up in popularity following the election of Donald Trump in 2016. If the group was successful, 38 states and Congress would have to agree to change the US Constitution and permit California to secede – a situation that analysts have described as just short of impossible.

The demonstration, held on the north side of the capitol with a start time of around 10:00 AM on February 14, 2018, was described by cofounder Marcus Evans as a signature-collecting event announcing the relaunch of the CalExit campaign.

“We’re going to be collecting signatures for California’s declaration of independence from the United States,” Evans wrote in applying for the permit. It was later approved by CHP Officer Debora Zaragoza.

On the other hand, the indictment of Russian national Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov – accused of working with the FSB to orchestrate a foreign influence campaign to sow discord and interfere in US elections – claims the demonstration was one of many orchestrated by Ionov with the goal of harming the US.

“Ionov allegedly orchestrated a brazen influence campaign, turning US political groups and US citizens into instruments of the Russian government,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the DOJ’s National Security Division said in a statement. “The Department of Justice will not allow Russia to unlawfully sow division and spread misinformation inside the United States.”

The indictment says Ionov communicated with the PAC’s founder, Louis J. Marinelli, urging him to physically enter the governor’s office as the event was still in its planning stages. Ionov allegedly wired Marinelli 500 dollars to pay for posters, later reporting back to an FSB officer.

“On or about February 8, 2018, defendant IONOV sent electronic messages to FSB OFFICER 1, containing photographs that UIC-6 had sent to defendant IONOV and advising FSB OFFICER 1 in Russian that the “posters” had been paid for,” a portion of the indictment reads.

A day after the demonstration, which was completely peaceful with no reported arrests nor a storming of the governor’s office, the FSB officer asked Ionov for pictures of the event and complained that the rally wasn’t “a historic rally in the parliament building.” He later urged Marinelli for more photos and sent news articles about CalExit to the FSB officer, recalling that the official had “asked for turmoil” and replied with “there you go.”

Ionov also allegedly sent articles he wrote, filled with Russian propaganda, to Marinelli and others for publication in US media outlets. Ionov allegedly recruited him to travel to pro-separatist conferences in Moscow funded by the Russian Federation and the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia. Other locations touched by the sprawling influence campaign include Atlanta, Georgia, and St. Petersburg, Florida.

Ionov is currently facing one count of conspiring to defraud the United States. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison.

Ethan Biando
Ethan Biando is a freelance journalist from Sacramento. His writing focuses on crime, courts, and policing. Find him on Twitter @ethanb822

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