- Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office announced Friday that California resident Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty on February 12 to one count of identity fraud in connection with the Russia probe.
- According to the statement of offence, Pinedo created fake bank accounts using stolen identities to help users circumvent the security protocols set up by large online payment websites like PayPal.
- A separate indictment filed by Mueller’s office earlier on Friday said that Russian nationals used PayPal to purchase Facebook ads aimed at sowing discord during the 2016 election.
- Pinedo appears to have unwittingly aided the defendants named in the earlier indictment in their efforts to create PayPal accounts, and he is now cooperating with Mueller.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office announced on Friday that California resident Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud on February 12, according to court documents.
The plea deal’s release came immediately after Mueller’s office announced charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities accused of interfering in the 2016 US election by mounting an elaborate and multi-faceted social media influence operation meant to sow political discord during and after the race.
According to the statement of offence, Pinedo ran a company called “Auction Essistance,” which offered services meant to get around the security requirements set by online payment companies like eBay, PayPal, and Amazon. Auction Essistance was shut down in December. The company’s website says it is currently undergoing scheduled maintenance.
To help customers circumvent the security protocols set up by online payment websites, Pinedo created bank accounts on the internet using fraudulent identities and then sold those account numbers to Auction Essistance customers, the statement of offence said. It added that although Pinedo was not directly involved in registering the accounts while using fake identities, “he wilfully and intentionally avoided learning about the use of stolen identities.”
He did, however, help users get around the security protocols set up by PayPal, which is referred to in the plea deal as Company 1.
PayPal was also named in the indictment Mueller’s office released earlier on Friday. The indictment says the Russians used PayPal to purchase ads on Facebook which were aimed at stoking political tensions before and after the election.
PayPal verifies users’ bank account information by making trial deposits into the accounts associated with a user and then asking them to relay the amount of the deposits.
According to the statement of offence against Pinedo, the 28-year-old unwittingly aided the Russians in their efforts and helped them bypass PayPal’s security measures by telling them the amounts of the trial deposits made to the fake bank accounts they had registered under.
Moreover, Pinedo “frequently” bought the fake account numbers from someone outside the US, and he also knew that many of his customers were based outside the country.
In total, the document said, Pinedo made “tens of thousands of dollars, and more than $US1,000 during a one-year period, through the sale of these bank account numbers.”
How much did Pinedo know about his Russian clients?
Pinedo, who is the first American to be charged with aiding Russia’s influence operation, is cooperating with Mueller’s investigators following his plea deal.
“This doesn’t mean that there won’t be additional charges to come,” said former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. “The charge against Pinedo will likely result in a light sentence for him, particularly given his cooperation.”
But “the question remains: did anyone in the Trump campaign, or anyone else involved in US politics knowingly aid the Russians?” Mariotti said. “In other words, did they know about the Russian operation and help” it succeed?
“That is what people dub ‘collusion,’ which isn’t a legal term,” he added.
PayPal said Friday that it is cooperating with the Department of Justice as it continues investigating Russia’s election interference.
“PayPal is intensely focused on combatting and preventing the illicit use of its services and works closely with law enforcement, including in this instance,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
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