For the second time in six days, special counsel Robert Mueller has moved to begin the process of sentencing a cooperating defendant in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, this time a California man charged with a Russian internet trolling operation in February.
Richard Pinedo, 28, of Santa Paula, California, pleaded guilty Feb. 12 in Washington to creating hundreds of bank accounts, often using stolen identities, and selling some to unidentified offshore users, including suspects connected to the Russia probe.
Pinedo’s attorney, Jeremy Lessem, said Tuesday in a statement that the filing “indicates that we have begun the process of moving towards setting a sentencing date and ultimately resolving this case for Mr. Pinedo.”
However, Lessem added, “I don’t have any information as to what this means, if anything, for the broader Special Counsel investigation in general.”
The charge against Pinedo was announced the same day Mueller unveiled an indictment against 13 Russian individuals and three companies, including the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, accused of running a long-running scheme to trick Americans online into following Russian-fed propaganda to support then-candidate Donald Trump.
In the filing Tuesday, prosecutors with the special counsel’s office asked a federal judge to refer Pinedo’s case to U.S. probation officials to prepare a pre-sentencing report – the first step to bringing his case to a close. They indicated that they would update the court on that process on June 28. Pinedo’s guilty plea included an advisory sentencing guideline of 12 to 18 months.
Last Wednesday, also at the request of Mueller’s team, a federal judge began the sentencing process for former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI about Russian contacts during the campaign and agreed to co-operate with the investigation.
Prosecutors typically delay sentencing if they need a co-operating defendant to testify, and the special counsel’s willingness to begin the sentencing process may signal that its need for the two men is coming to a close.
The conclusion of the Papadopoulos chapter would be a significant milestone in the investigation, which was formally opened after Australian officials alerted the FBI to an unusual interaction with the young adviser in London in July 2016.
The Australians said Papadopoulos told one of their diplomats that he had been informed by a London-based professor, Josef Mifsud, that the Russians had damaging material about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Pinedo’s case is less central. Lessem has said his client “had absolutely no knowledge” of who his data purchasers were or what they did with the information he sold.
His status as the sole American charged in the Russian troll operation gave a rare look at the use of U.S. citizens in the alleged scheme.
The pre-sentencing report is an investigation into whether a person’s background may warrant a harsher or more lenient sentence and is a necessary step in the federal system before sentencing. The process usually takes 70 to 90 days, meaning both sides at next month’s update could ask U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich to set a sentencing date, probably after Labor Day. However, prosecutors are not required to set a sentencing date, even after the report is complete.
The filing comes ahead of trials scheduled to begin July 28 and Sept. 10 in Alexandria, Virginia, and the District of Columbia for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who faces conspiracy, bank- and tax-fraud and lobbying-disclosure allegations in connection with his longtime work for pro-Russian politicians and entities in Ukraine. Manafort has pleaded not guilty in both courts.
President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and prosecutors are also expected to update a federal court by June 29 on any sentencing plans. Flynn, in a deal with Mueller’s team in December, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
Finally, attorneys for one of three Russian companies accused of election interference – Concord Management and Consulting – are due back in court in June after its not-guilty plea. The company, founded by business executive Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin – nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin – was the only one of the 16 Russian individual and corporate defendants to appear in U.S. court after its indictment.