Feds accuse woman who founded ‘Russian propaganda center’ of failing to register as a foreign agent

March 9, 2022, 12:18 AM UTC

A woman with Russian and U.S. citizenships who founded what prosecutors called a “Russian propaganda center” in New York City was charged Tuesday with subverting laws requiring foreign agents to register with the U.S.

The charges against Elena Branson were announced after the unsealing of a criminal complaint in Manhattan federal court.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Branson, who left the country for Russia after September 2020 and remains at large, was alleged to have corresponded directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin as he carried out an aggressive propaganda campaign.

Williams said in a release that the correspondence with Putin and a high-ranking Russia minister preceded her founding of the Russian Center New York, which the prosecutor described as a “Russian propaganda center.”

He said her promotional outreach included an “I Love Russia” campaign aimed at American youths.

“All the while, Branson knew she was supposed to register as an agent of the Russian government but chose not to do so and, instead, instructed others regarding how to illegally avoid the same,” Williams said.

“Particularly given current global events, the need to detect and hinder attempts at foreign influence is of critical importance, and the Southern District of New York is proud to do its part in the fight against tyranny,” he said.

The criminal complaint accused Branson of acting illegally on behalf of the Russian government since at least 2011. It said she started the Russian Center New York in 2012 after receiving tens of thousands of dollars in funding from the Russian government to do so.

Branson, 61, was charged with conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general, among other charges.

The complaint said her work on behalf of the Russian government included arranging meetings for herself and other Russian officials with U.S. government officials and executives at businesses based in the United States.

In March 2016, it said, she helped arrange meetings for the head of the Department of Foreign Economic Activity and International Relations for the Government of Moscow with, among others, a then-New York state senator and the management of certain U.S. companies.

In 2019, authorities said, she coordinated through her New York center a campaign to lobby Hawaiian officials not to change the name of a fort located on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which is the last remaining former Russian fort in the Hawaiian islands.

They said she provided Hawaiian officials with messages from Russian government officials and organized a trip to Moscow for Hawaiian officials responsible for the potential name change in order to meet with high-ranking government personnel.

Authorities said Branson regularly received funding and direction from the Russian government, including from the country’s embassy in Washington, and received tasking from high-level Russian government officials and government-run organizations.

In a release, authorities said the FBI interviewed Branson on Sept. 29, 2020 and she falsely claimed that she had never been asked by Russian officials to coordinate any meetings between U.S. business leaders or politicians and officials from the government of Moscow.

In October, Branson told a Russian government-controlled television station that she had left the U.S. because she thought it was likely that she would be arrested.

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