A cooperating witness working with special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election says he “lives in a constant state of fear” after providing testimony that led to the indictment of Russian nationals, court records filed late Wednesday night show.
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Richard Pinedo, a California man who pleaded guilty to charges of identity fraud in February for his role in unwittingly selling bank accounts to Russians, is slated for sentencing next month.
Prosecutors say Pinedo’s crime calls for a 12- to 18-month prison sentence, but his attorney, Jeremey Lessem, has asked for a non-custodial sentence citing how Pinedo “has suffered, and will continue to suffer, in ways far beyond what anyone else convicted of a similar offense would expect.” He cited the attention brought by his involvement in Mueller’s investigation and fear of retribution from the Russian government.
In an effort to secure a lesser sentence for his client, Lessem argued that Pinedo’s testimony to a federal grand jury “assisted in the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and 3 business entities.” Pinedo volunteered information “knowing full well that testifying against foreign agents, especially Russian foreign nationals potentially working directly for the Kremlin, meant putting his own safety at serious risk,” the filing says.
“In a time when those critical of Russia are being murdered,” Lessem wrote Wednesday night, “Mr. Pinedo’s cooperation with the investigation was an act that directly undermined his, and his family’s, safety.”
In its own filing, the special counsel’s office did not take a position on the sentence to be imposed, but noted that Pinedo’s “prompt acceptance of responsibility saved the government significant time and resources in the investigation.”
Special counsel prosecutors said Pinedo bought and sold bank account numbers over the internet with the intention of allowing his customers to circumvent security verification processes for digital payment companies such as PayPal.
In a February indictment of the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll factory,” the special counsel wrote that Russians purchased the fraudulent bank account numbers in order to register accounts with PayPal. The Russians then used PayPal to pay for advertisements on Facebook and other “expenses such as buttons, flags, and banners for rallies.”
“Never in his wildest dreams could he have foreseen that providing bank account information to set up Pay Pal accounts could be used to interfere with a presidential election,” Lessem wrote on Wednesday.
Mueller has filed indictments against 25 Russians and three Russian entities to date with crimes related to meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Two other cooperating witnesses in that probe – Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan and former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos – have already been sentenced to prison for lying to federal investigators.
Pinedo’s sentencing is scheduled for October 10.