Cal­i­for­nia man sen­tenced in Rus­sia in­quiry

Co­op­er­a­tion has aided Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Kevin John­son

“Never did it cross my mind that the ser­vices I was pro­vid­ing were to be used in crimes at the high­est level.” Richard Pinedo, con­victed of iden­tity fraud

WASH­ING­TON – A Cal­i­for­nia man who un­wit­tingly aided Rus­sia’s cam­paign to in­ter­fere in the 2016 elec­tion by pro­vid­ing op­er­a­tives ac­cess to fraud­u­lent bank ac­count in­for­ma­tion was sen­tenced Wed­nes­day to six months in prison fol­lowed by six months of home con­fine­ment.

Richard Pinedo, 28, who co­op­er­ated with Jus­tice De­part­ment spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller in the Rus­sia in­quiry, is the sec­ond tar­get to be sen­tenced in the past two months.

Last month, for­mer Trump cam­paign ad­viser Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los was sen­tenced to two weeks in prison and fined $9,500 for ly­ing to the FBI.

Though he cited Pinedo’s “sig­nif­i­cant” co­op­er­a­tion with fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors, U.S. District Judge Dab­ney Friedrich said the “wide­spread scale” of the iden­tity fraud mer­ited in­car­cer­a­tion.

Friedrich said Pinedo’s ac­tions “opened the door” for the ex­ploita­tion of the fi­nan­cial net­work.

Pinedo, a for­mer com­puter sci­ence stu­dent who had no con­nec­tion to the Trump cam­paign, pleaded guilty this year to iden­tity fraud as part of a scheme in which he ac­quired bank ac­count in­for­ma­tion on­line and sold the in­for­ma­tion to anony­mous buy­ers whose ranks in­cluded op­er­a­tives linked to the Krem­lin.

From 2014 to 2017, Pinedo earned $40,000 to $95,000 from the trans­ac­tions, pros­e­cu­tors said. There was no ev­i­dence he knew of Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment or the buy­ers’ iden­ti­ties at the time.

In a brief state­ment, Pinedo apol­o­gized and de­scribed how his in­volve­ment in the high-pro­file in­ves­ti­ga­tion al­tered his life and his fam­ily.

“Never did it cross my mind that the ser­vices I was pro­vid­ing were to be used in crimes at the high­est level,” he said, read­ing from a writ­ten state­ment. “My life has been turned up­side down.”

Pinedo told the judge his fam­ily suf­fered un­re­lent­ing ha­rass­ment since his ar­rest from peo­ple call­ing him a traitor. Pinedo said he lives in fear that the Krem­lin could re­tal­i­ate for his co­op­er­a­tion in the Mueller in­quiry by us­ing nerve agent poi­son that has felled vic­tims in the United King­dom.

“Ev­ery knock on the door comes with anx­i­ety,” he told Friedrich.

Pinedo’s at­tor­ney, Jeremy Lessem, asked the court to im­pose a sen­tence of pro­ba­tion, cit­ing his client’s ex­ten­sive co­op­er­a­tion. In­deed, pros­e­cu­tors cred­ited Pinedo’s as­sis­tance in bring­ing an in­dict­ment in Fe­bru­ary against 13 Rus­sian na­tion­als and three busi­nesses – in­clud­ing an in­ter­net firm tied to the Krem­lin – as part of a scheme to sow dis­trust in the U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Pros­e­cu­tor Rush Atkin­son said Pinedo pro­vided in­for­ma­tion that could im­pli­cate oth­ers in un­re­lated crimes.

The col­lec­tive weight of his client’s as­sis­tance, Lessem said, should have pushed pros­e­cu­tors to rec­om­mend a pun­ish­ment that would have al­lowed Pinedo to avoid prison time.

“This is a dif­fi­cult time for Mr. Pinedo,” Lessem said af­ter the hear­ing. “This was not the out­come we were look­ing for. We were hop­ing that the govern­ment could have done more.

“(Pinedo) never wanted to be part of any of this,” the at­tor­ney said.

In court pa­pers, Lessem ar­gued that at the start of the scheme, Pinedo sold only ac­counts “he per­son­ally opened in his own name.”

“Even­tu­ally, the de­mand for ac­count in­for­ma­tion out­paced his abil­ity to open bank ac­counts un­der his own name,” Lessem said, mak­ing it nec­es­sary to “find ac­count num­bers from other sources.”

Pros­e­cu­tors said Pinedo sold about 200 such ac­count num­bers dur­ing a three-year pe­riod.

“When Mr. Pinedo un­der­took his il­le­gal and mis­guided busi­ness ven­ture ... he didn’t pic­ture his cus­tomers us­ing his ser­vices to com­mit crimes,” Lessem said in court doc­u­ments. “Mr. Pinedo ob­vi­ously should have in­vested more thought into the pos­si­ble ne­far­i­ous in­ten­tions of those that sought his ser­vices. How­ever, never in his wildest dreams could he have fore­seen that pro­vid­ing bank ac­count in­for­ma­tion to set up PayPal ac­counts could be used to in­ter­fere with a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.”

As part of his sen­tence, Friedrich or­dered Pinedo to serve 24 months of su­per­vised re­lease af­ter com­plet­ing the six months of home con­fine­ment.

In­stead of im­me­di­ately or­der­ing Pinedo into cus­tody, Friedrich al­lowed him to re­turn to Cal­i­for­nia, where he is to sur­ren­der to the fed­eral Bureau of Prisons at an un­de­ter­mined date.

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