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Cooperating US defendant sentenced in Mueller probe of Russian 2016 election trolling effort

Richard Pinedo of Santa Paula, Calif., gets into a vehicle outside federal court after sentencing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer

A California man whose testimony contributed to the indictment of 13 Russian individuals and three companies in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of an alleged 2016 U.S. election trolling effort was sentenced Wednesday to six months in prison and six months home confinement in a deal with prosecutors.

Richard Pinedo, 28, of Santa Paula, California, pleaded guilty Feb. 12 to identity theft in a deal announced the same day Mueller's office unveiled an indictment accusing the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency. The defendants were charged with running a far-reaching fraud scheme using fake social media accounts to trick Americans online into following Russian-fed propaganda to support then-candidate Donald Trump.

Pinedo admitted creating about 200 bank accounts, often using stolen identities, and selling some to unidentified offshore users, including suspects connected to the Russia probe.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich of the District said Pinedo cooperated fully and immediately once contacted by the FBI. Prosecutors acknowledged Pinedo significantly aided the investigation by linking anonymous Internet activity to the charged Russians, which include business executive Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, nicknamed "Putin's chef" because of his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"This is a very, very difficult case," Friedrich said in sentencing Pinedo, noting he "opened the door for others outside this country" to exploit security loopholes to harm Americans.

On the other hand, the judge credited Pinedo for his help to prosecutors, youth, lack of criminal record, intelligence and family support, adding, "I can tell you're genuinely remorseful."

The sentence fell at the low end of a recommended sentence of 12 to 18 months, half of which prosecutors agreed could be served under home confinement.

Pinedo's attorney, Jeremy Lessem, said he was pleased with the judge's consideration, but disappointed that late in the process Mueller prosecutors said they would not write a letter formally crediting his client with substantial help and requesting a lesser sentence.

"It's clear that Judge Friedrich took Mr. Pinedo's significant participation into consideration, even in the absence of the recommendation he deserved from the special counsel's office," Lessem said. He said that even as the office credited Pinedo with telling the "unvarnished truth," its response would give future cooperators "some pause."

Mueller prosecutor Rush Atkinson said that while the government would probably have done so in an ordinary fraud investigation, the evidence Pinedo provided about other criminal activity fell outside the special counsel's mandate of Russian election interference, was referred to other U.S. prosecutors and has not yet been prosecuted.

Meanwhile, Atkinson said, "The government knew the information Pinedo provided about the Russian individuals," although he did explain how the fraud scheme worked and provided voluminous computer and other records that "saved the government significant time and resources."

Prosecutors estimated Pinedo earned $40,000 to $95,000 over three years by selling about 200 real bank account numbers to anonymous users to help circumvent PayPal's security protocols. Doing so helped customers, some of whom had been banned from the network, to anonymously transact with U.S. people and companies, prosecutors said.

However, the government took the position that it could confirm the identity of fewer than 10 of Pinedo's actual victims.

Lessem has said Pinedo had absolutely no knowledge of who his data purchasers were or what they did with the information he sold.

Pinedo in a brief statement to the court said he "took full responsibility" for his actions and apologized to his family.

He said he lives in constant fear for his safety and his family's safety and in fear of the Russian government, saying "every knock on the door comes with anxiety over who they might be or whether they want to harm us."

Pinedo said he is viewed by some as a traitor to his country and has been threatened with harm by others for cooperating with the FBI and warned he will be poisoned if he travels abroad.

In a court filing, Lessem added, "At the end of the day, Mr. Pinedo loves his Country, deeply regrets what he has done, and asks only that this Court consider that he has already suffered enough."

This article was written by Spencer S. Hsu, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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