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Indictment Says Russians Communicated With Person Affiliated With Texas Group

Marjorie Kamys Cotera
Texas Tribune

Russian nationals working to interfere with the 2016 presidential election visited Texas in 2014, spread derogatory information against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz during the Republican primary and posed as Americans while communicating with a person “affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization,” according to an indictment issued Friday.

The indictment came from a grand jury involved with the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into tampering, possible collusion and other issues related to the 2016 presidential election. Thirteen Russians in all were indicted, along with an organization called the Internet Research Agency that was “engaged in political and electoral interference operations.”

The 37-page document details numerous Russian operations across the United States, especially in swing states like Florida. But Texas is mentioned several times.

It identifies neither the Texas group the Russians are alleged to have communicated with nor the person affiliated with the group. But it says the alleged conspirators created a fake American named "Matt Skiber" to communicate through. And, the indictment says, the Russians "learned from the real U.S. person that they should focus their activities on 'purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.'" 

Afterward, the indictment alleges, the co-conspirators "commonly referred to targeting 'purple states.” 

The person affiliated with the Texas grassroots group also promised the Russian nationals he or she would pass along Facebook events to Tea Party voters in Florida, the indictment says. 

News of the Texas connection immediately set off speculation about which grassroots group might have been contacted. One group, the Texas Nationalist Movement, which advocates for secession, put out a statement saying it "had no knowledge of nor any involvement with the Russian-led efforts to influence" the election. 

"I am calling on Mueller and the Department of Justice to specifically name the the individual and the organization referenced in the indictment," said the group's president, Daniel Miller. "Vague accusations of this nature are harmful to the TNM and all Texas-based organizations who are engaged in the political process and can only serve to further erode the credibility of the Department of Justice and the Russia probe."

The indictment also doesn't go into much detail about how the Russians disparaged Cruz, whose office didn't immediately return a request for comment. But, speaking more broadly about the Russians' efforts against candidates other than Trump, the indictment says the Russians bought political advertising under fake names and staged political rallies while posing as U.S.-based grassroots organizations. The conspirators also targeted Democrat Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, during the campaign, the indictment says.

The Internet Research Agency employed hundreds of people, the indictment says, who operated out of a building in St. Petersburg, Russia, and were assigned to departments devoted to producing graphics, analyzing data, employing search engine optimization and managing information technology. 

The organization described its work as "information warfare against the United States of America," the indictment says.

Two Russians named in the indictment, Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova and Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, are also alleged to have traveled to Texas and eight other states in June 2014 "to gather intelligence." Krylova is described in the indictment as the Internet Research Agency's third-highest-ranking employee; Burchik is described as the executive director or second-highest-ranking employee. 

Mueller was tasked in May 2017 to investigate election meddling and possible collusion in Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election. He has already filed charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort over money laundering, conspiracy against the United States and more. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to giving false testimony to the FBI in the case. 

Mueller is also reportedly investigating Trump for obstruction of justice. Trump has denied any collusion or obstruction.

This isn’t the first time Russian election meddling has made Texas news. Last year, federal officials released evidence that two Facebook pages created by Russians organized dueling rallies in front of an Islamic center in Houston. One of the groups, "United Muslims of America," is referenced in the indictment released Friday. The indictment says the fake group encouraged Muslim Americans to boycott the election.

Another Russian-created group mentioned in the indictment was called "Heart of Texas."

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Bobby Blanchard runs the Tribune’s social media efforts. A graduate of UT-Austin, Bobby spent his first year out of college at The Dallas Morning News as a reporting fellow, covering Texas politics and breaking news. He got his start in journalism in the poorly lit basement of The Daily Texan, followed by internships at the Houston Chronicle, KUT News and yes, the Tribune. Born and raised in the Houston area, Bobby is a native Texan. He relies on a steady supply of Tex-Mex and Red Bull to survive.