The FBI is conducting a wide-ranging criminal investigation into a Russian diaspora group, which announced on November 18th that it was shutting down operations because of federal scrutiny.
The Daily Beast first reported FBI interest in The Russian Community Council of the USA (or KSORS — their Russian acronym) in June 2021. Now, information coming from KSORS and sources who spoke with Forensic News indicate that the FBI investigation is criminal in nature and more expansive than previously known.
While a statement from KSORS announcing its suspension of activities says that the FBI is investigating potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), sources tell Forensic News that investigators are also keenly interested in KSORS political activities, including rallying Trump supporters in 2020.
“We interpret the FBI’s measures towards Russian community members, especially individuals who organize Russian cultural events and openly advocate for more dialogue and people-to-people ties with Russia, as a form of pressure reminiscent of the Cold War era,” KSORS said in the statement.
The Russian Embassy condemned the news of the criminal investigation by saying that the First Amendment rights of the members of the group had been violated.
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Details of the FBI probe
As stated in the Daily Beast article and the statement from KSORS, the FBI investigation has included multiple search warrants conducted at the residences of senior members of the group. Numerous electronic devices were seized in late 2020, according to a former member of the group who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their safety.
The group’s former chairwoman, Elena Branson, fled to Russia around the time of the electronic device seizures because she was worried about a potential arrest, according to the source.
In October, Branson gave an interview to Russia Today’s Maria Butina, the convicted Russian agent who served prison time in the U.S. for acting as an unregistered agent for Russia in her infiltration of the National Rifle Association and other Republican political groups.
In the interview, Branson states,
“On September 29 last year, they rang my doorbell early in the morning…when the door opened, there were about 30 FBI agents on the doorstep – all dressed in uniform, all with pistols, in bulletproof vests…They showed a search warrant and…asked me to go out and searched the apartment for several hours.”
Branson also shares a copy of the search warrant and says that the charges being investigated included not only the failure to register under FARA, but also conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and 18 U.S. Code § 951, a law often referred to as “espionage-lite.” Butina was convicted under the same statute.
Section 951 is more serious than FARA and contains stiffer penalties, according to a Lawfare examination of the statute in the Butina case. “Those charged in recent years under the statute include 10 Russian spies ousted in 2010 and Russian spy Evgeny Buryakov,” Lawfare wrote.
An enhanced screenshot of the search warrant presented in Branson’s interview with Butina confirms the Section 951 pillar of the probe. The language in the warrant includes says that Branson is being investigated for being an “agent of a foreign government without prior notification…” That language is found in the legal statute of Section 951.
Branson also indicated in the interview that FBI agents were interested in the funding of KSORS and tax paperwork filed by the organization. They also asked if Branson was communicating with Butina, according to Branson’s retelling of the events.
The mention of both FARA and Section 951 in Branson’s case indicates that the FBI might suspect that Branson was both an agent of the Russian government and conducted political activities on behalf of the Kremlin that should have been registered with the U.S. government.
The former KSORS member said that in at least one interview, federal agents asked about the group’s political activities.
“Without having seen the associated paperwork it’s hard to say with too much certainty, but references to both FARA and Section 951 are a strong indicator that this may a large scale counterintelligence investigation of some kind; those are two of the major statutes cited in the roll-up of past ‘illegals’ networks operating within the United States,” said Daniel Maki, Senior Intelligence Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
“The previous reporting that the FBI has been looking at this organization for well over a year, having seized electronic devices for forensic imaging coupled with scrutiny of KSORS’ finances and the apparent flight of several of the parties right at the center of the organization suggests that this may be large-scale FBI operation,” Maki said.
KSORS-related political activities
A 2020 Byline Times article found that Branson and another KSORS official, Sergey Gladysh promoted the “Trump 2020 Labor Day Cruise Rally” in Portland, Ore. and that Gladysh had a history of pushing vitriolic pro-Kremlin narratives.
Forensic News can reveal that Gladysh’s pro-Trump internet activity was much broader than previously known. In 2020, Gladysh’s Seattle-based Russian-American Cooperation Initiative founded a news website that nearly exclusively promoted Trump and disseminated Russian propaganda, according to internet archives.
The news website featured articles with the titles such as “Second Trump term is crucial to prospect of better U.S.-Russia relations, safer world,” and “Biden victory will spell disaster for U.S.-Russia relations, warns billionaire.” The billionaire referenced by the outlet is Oleg Deripaska, a key figure in the 2016 Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia.
A different source with knowledge of the FBI investigation and who also spoke to Forensic News on condition of anonymity said that some of the early federal interest into KSORS centered on Mikhail Morgulis, a Soviet-born theologian and Honorary Consul to Belarus. Morgulis sat on the board of KSORS from 2014-2018 and kept close personal contact with Branson, according to one of the sources who spoke with Forensic News.
Morgulis died at the age of 79 on November 16, 2021.
Morgulis attempted to rally Russian voters for Donald Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections and allied himself with numerous associates connected to Russian intelligence and influence operations that have caught the attention of the FBI.
According to the Washington Post, Morgulis and Sergei Millian worked on a plan to rally Russian voters for Trump in 2016. Millian, who was in contact with Trump aide George Papadopoulos, later fled the country and was not able to be interviewed by investigators.
The Senate Intelligence Committee later found that “much about Sergei Millian resembles activities by a Russian intelligence officer or cooptee,” and “Millian exhibited behavior consistent with intelligence tradecraft, and both have significant ties to Russian government and business circles.”
In a 2017 interview, Morgulis claimed that he “personally visited 11 cities in Florida, where I said that if you want our new president to be a homosexual . . . vote for Hillary.”
In the 2020 election, Morgulis once again claimed that he helped organize Russian voters for Trump in Florida. “Yes, I participated all over the country, but I was focused on this state, Florida,” he said.
In another interview with a Belarus state-owned TV station just days before the 2020 U.S. election, Morgulis said that he passed a statement from Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to the U.S. Congress containing unfounded claims of corruption by the Bidens in Ukraine.
“I have a statement on my computer by the former Prosecutor General of Ukraine Shokin, whom the former President of Ukraine Poroshenko dismissed from his post as Prosecutor General at the insistence of Biden,” Morgulis stated. “I handed [the statement] to the Congress of the United States of America.”
Morgulis, Branson, and Millian all received Silver Archer Awards in 2015, a Russian public affairs accomplishment given to U.S. persons advancing Russian cultural and business interests. The founder of Silver Archer is Igor Pisarsky, a “Kremlin-linked public relations power player” who facilitated money transfers from a Russian oligarch to Maria Butina.
Morgulis, along with Millian, maintained longstanding ties with Russian government officials, as previously outlined by Forensic News. Three months before his death, Morgulis insisted to Forensic News that he had “no relations with the Kremlin and no contact with the Russian government.”
A 2016 report by the Russian news outlet Kommersant and picked up by journalist Grant Stern found that at least one senior member of KSORS met with Russian government officials and updated them on pro-Russian political activities in the U.S. that were allegedly funded by Russia’s Foreign Ministry. That KSORS member “boasted that the New York state authorities exempted her NGO from paying taxes.”
In addition to Branson, numerous other KSORS members have returned to Russia, including Gladysh and other former board members.
The FBI and a representative for KSORS did not respond to a request for comment.