In September 2016, a merchandizing professional in Zagreb, Croatia named Maja Bogovic received an email from a management and consulting services company based in Hong Kong. Bogovic learned that an executive at the company, Francesco Gianelli, was looking for a personal assistant. She assumed that the company had looked at her LinkedIn profile and thought of her as a potential candidate for the expanding management business, Contrell.
Bogovic and her potential new boss, Gianelli, met for the first time in late September 2016. During the meeting, Gianelli handed Bogovic his business card and confirmed her interest in working for the company.
Through the end of 2016 and into 2017, Bogovic completed various tasks for Gianelli, such as incorporating a company in the British Virgin Islands, and purchasing domain names.
Over a year after Bogovic’s initial meeting with Gianelli, however, Google notified her that information from a Gmail account that was set up to do work for Gianelli was being provided to a third party because of a court proceeding. She thought the message odd and told Gianelli, who brushed it off as no big deal.
A little over a month later, Bogovic’s emails to Gianelli stopped delivering.
“I received automatic message delivery failure notifications advising that their email addresses no longer existed. I also could not reach them through WhatsApp,” Bogovic said in an affidavit. “It was at that point that, for the first time, I became skeptical about the situation.”
Co-opted by Psy Group
In early 2018, Bogovic’s world turned upside down when she was informed that the court proceeding was a case out of Canada, and Gianelli was not who he said he was. In fact, he was a covert operative for Psy Group, an intelligence-gathering and social media manipulating company based in Israel and staffed with multiple former Israeli spies.
Legal documents in Canada and reporting in the New Yorker confirm that the name Francesco Gianelli was used by Psy Group.
Bogovic has since fully cooperated in the Canadian court case where West Face Capital alleges that rival Catalyst Capital Group hired Psy Group to defame West Face. The case is ongoing. Psy Group co-opted not only Bogovic but also a number of other people to carry out their tasks, such as various advertisement groups and industrial printers.
Hundreds of pages of court documents as well as interviews with multiple people familiar with Psy Group’s operations have shown, for the first time, that the company ran a disinformation campaign targeting two prominent anti-corruption activists in Ukraine. This campaign resulted in at least two YouTube videos spreading false information about the Ukrainian activists. The videos remain online today.
The existence of the campaign to smear the anti-corruption fighters in Ukraine raises questions about Psy Group’s clients in the months following their pitches to aid the Trump campaign and their business partnership with Cambridge Analytica. As previously reported, the founder of Psy Group, Joel Zamel, met with Donald Trump Jr, Erik Prince, and George Nader in the Summer of 2016 offering election assistance to the Trump campaign. After the election, Nader paid Zamel a sum of approximately $2,000,000 for reasons that remain unknown.
The targets of the Psy Group operation
The two targets of the Ukraine operation, of which Bogovic was unknowingly apart, were Vitaliy Shabunin and Daria Kaleniuk, two well-known figures fighting against corruption in the Ukrainian government. Kaleniuk, when contacted for comment about this story, was entirely unaware of Psy Group’s involvement in her own smear campaign.
“This is first time I’ve heard about Psy Group,” Kaleniuk said. When shown the YouTube video, Kaleniuk responded, “Of course i know this video, but we did not connect it to [Psy Group].” Kaleniuk said that she and those in her orbit have faced repeated attacks, online and in person. In 2018, Shabunin, who is the co-founder alongside Kaleniuk of Anti-Corruption Action Centre (AntAC), was attacked and burned with a green liquid by unknown assailants.
Shabunin and AntAC are also key allies of Ukrainian politician Serhiy Leshchenko, who was among the first high-profile officials to promote the existance of Paul Manafort’s name and signature on former pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych’s so-called “black ledger”. That revelation, originally disclosed by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, led to Manafort resigning from the Trump campaign in August 2016. Foreign Policy has since dubbed Leshchenko, “The Ukrainian Who Sunk Paul Manafort”. Leshchenko subsequently became a target of prominent conservative political leaders for playing a role in the conspiracy theory that the Clinton campaign colluded with the Ukrainian government.
Leshchenko, like Kaleniuk was entirely unaware of the details of the operation. “I have never heard about this company [Psy Group]. I know AntAC leaders as fair and brave anticorruption activists. We make a lot activity together,” Leshchenko told me exclusively.
When shown the Psy Group-created video smearing Kaleniuk, Leshchenko said, “yes, I remember this video. We didn’t understand how it hapenned, now it is clear.”
Conservative columnist John Solomon named Shabunin and Kaleniuk’s AntAC group as being directly involved with an entirely unsubstantiated Obama/George Soros effort to damage Trump by revealing Manafort’s illegal dealings in Ukraine. “AntAC wasn’t just the benefactor of well-connected patrons,” wrote Russia Today summarizing Solomon’s article, “at the time it was also collaborating with FBI agents to uncover then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s business dealings in Ukraine.”
In 2017, Manafort continued to advise the Trump administration to “allege — albeit with no evidence to back up said charges — that the pro-Western Ukrainian government had colluded with the Democratic National Committee to try to help Hillary Clinton win…” As the previously linked Vox article mentions, the Trump adminstration did run with this talking point for a few weeks.
At precisely the same time that Manafort was advising the Trump White House to push the “DNC-Ukraine collusion” narrative that was largely based on Leshchenko’s 2016 actions, Psy Group was running an operation to smear one of Leshchenko’s closest allies — Vitaliy Shabunin.
“On May 4, 2017, Gianelli sent me an email with instructions to in to log an account on the website fiverr.com, which is another website that provides a marketplace through which users can purchase various freelance services on demand.
The two services that Gianelli directed me to purchase were: (1) the creation of a “Breaking News VIDEO Commercial Special Offer”; and (2) the creation of a “News Style Spokesperson Video in HD.'”
–Maja Bogovic in her sworn affidavit
Bogovic made the purchases and the two men whom she hired off of the freelancer marketplace Fiverr went to work creating the news videos. Both men declined to comment on this article specifically. One of the men featured as the news host, Michael-John Wolfe, said he’d rather not talk because it was stressful for his wife and family.
“Fiverr is how I support my family,” Wolfe said, but he deleted his Fiverr less than 24 hours after he sent his last message. Neither Wolfe nor anyone else involved in the videos is suspected of any wrongdoing. It appears that no one involved knew this was a Psy Group operation.
The videos attracted over 21,000 views, and shine a light on one aspect of Psy Group’s information warfare tactics. They were but one part of a bigger campaign against Shabunin, per a person familiar with the operation.
In her sworn affidavit, Bogovic said,
“On May 9, 2017, Gianelli sent me another email with instructions to purchase three items: (1) an article template, or “theme,” from WordPress, a blog site; (2) a plug-in for WordPress that enabled multilingual translation; and (3) 40 “credits” from 123RF, a website that allowed users to license images, illustrations, videos and other media for online use.”
Though the end results of the WordPress website remain unknown, the Ukrainian operation was the only Gianelli-project with which Bogovic was involved at the time. After the creation of the website, Bogovic didn’t complete any other tasks for Gianelli for over four months.
The full extent and nature of Psy Group’s campaign against the Ukrainian anti-corruption activists is yet to be revealed. According to at least one source, the Psy Group operation went beyond the YouTube videos and the WordPress website.
In various interviews, members of the small AntAC team expressed surprise that Psy Group was behind the operation. “We knew that lobbyists were engaged in a set of attacks against AntAC,” Kaleniuk said, “but I am impressed with the fact that Israeli elite ‘private Mossad’ firm was behind that as well.”
“We are under constant pressure from Ukrainian army of trolls and corrupt law enforcement agencies and we got used to that. However, hiring foreign intelligence firms to attack a 20 people NGO in Ukraine is something more profound & dangerous. It means that our activity exposing grand corruption of Ukrainian kleptocracts and their western enablers might harm also some very important and influential crooks outside of Ukraine.”
–Exclusive AntAC statement
Connections to Russia investigated by Mueller
The focus on Ukrainian anti-corruption leaders at the same time that Manafort was advising the Trump White House to spread the unsubstantiated claim that the DNC colluded with Ukraine raises new questions about Psy Group’s clientele and/or funding/ownership. Previously it was discovered that Ukrainian oligarch Vasyl Khmelnytsky used the parent company of Psy Group in his own business structure.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigated Psy Group as it related to the Russian interference in the 2016 election, but brought no charges in this area and his long-awaited report made no mention of the company. Mueller’s decision to not mention Psy Group in the report has led some in Washington, DC to believe that Mueller may have handed this case off to another DOJ office. If he could not prove that Psy Group was involved directly with the Russian effort, then he may have viewed the situation as outside of his scope, per two Congressional staffers.
“Given that Paul Manafort successfully directed the White House to target Trump’s opponents and U.S. investigators with smear campaigns, one must ask whether he or any of his associates were involved with the Psy Group smear attacks aimed at Ukrainian anti-corruption officials,” an American political operative active in Ukraine told Forensic News.
“The lesson we learned in 2016 is that Americans are vulnerable targets of foreign intelligence surveillance and intimidation tactics, regardless of whether they’re conducted by governments or private firms composed of former government spies and professional propagandists. When utilized by powerful political operatives who run in the Kremlin’s circles, no one is safe from being their targets.”
Included in his report, Mueller listed 14 active investigations that he transferred to other DOJ offices around the country after consulting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who had the power to determine Mueller’s scope. 12 of those investigations remain redacted:
“During the course of the investigation, the Office periodically identified evidence of potential criminal activity that was outside the scope of the Special Counsel’s jurisdiction established by the Acting Attorney General. After consultation with the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, the Office referred that evidence to appropriate law enforcement authorities, principally other components of the Department of Justice and the FBI.”