Defense lawyer Jeremy Lessem, left, walks in front of his client, Richard Pinedo, outside Washington’s federal trial court on Wednesday, October 10, 2018. Credit: C. Ryan Barber / NLJ

Updated 11:57 a.m.

A California man who pleaded guilty to identity fraud in connection with a scheme that allegedly aided Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election was sentenced Wednesday in Washington court to six months in prison.

The defendant, Richard Pinedo, who pleaded guilty to identity fraud in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, appeared before U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, marking the first time a Trump-appointed trial judge has sentenced a defendant who was prosecuted as part of the special counsel’s ongoing investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Friedrich credited Pinedo for promptly accepting responsibility and agreeing to assist the special counsel. “I commend you for that,” Friedrich said in court. Friedrich ordered Pinedo to serve, in addition to prison, six months of home detention, and he must perform 100 hours of community service.

Prosecutors working for the special counsel, Robert Mueller III, accused Pinedo of selling bank account numbers, many of them created using stolen identities, to help customers skirt the security features of large digital payment companies such as PayPal. “Mr. Pinedo sold hundreds of bank account numbers belonging to real people, and he did so for personal financial gain,” government lawyers told the court in a sentencing memo. The government had alleged Pinedo “contributed to the demand for stolen identities on the black market.”

Among the customers of Pinedo’s online service, according to court documents, were Russians behind an operation to use social media to disrupt the American political process.

Pinedo’s guilty plea was unsealed minutes after the Justice Department charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations with interfering in the 2016 election, alleging in the indictment that they obtained fraudulent bank account numbers to open PayPal accounts that were later used to purchase advertisements on Facebook.

None of the Russian defendants has appeared in Washington court, but one of the organizations—Concord Management and Consulting—has hired a defense team from Reed Smith and vigorously contested the special counsel’s charges.

With no knowledge of his clients’ identities or motivations, Pinedo was an unwitting supporter of the Russian plot, said his attorney, Jeremy Lessem of Lessem, Newstat & Tooson in Los Angeles.

Lessem urged Friedrich on Wednesday to consider the “unusual circumstances” surrounding the case against Pinedo. If not for the special counsel’s involvement, Lessem suggested that the case would have gone largely unnoticed in a state court.

“His life’s been turned upside-down by this,” Lessem said. Referring to the threats Pinedo has received, Lessem added, “He gets it from both sides,” with some accusing him of being a traitor and others saying he should “watch his back” for cooperating with the FBI against the Russian government.

“It’s going to change his life forever,” he said.

In his own statement to the judge, Pinedo said he accepted “full responsibility” and that the case had rocked his “quiet life in Santa Paula, California.”

“Every knock on the door now comes with anxiety,” he told Friedrich.

In court papers leading up to Wednesday’s sentencing, prosecutors took no position on the proper sentence for Pinedo but acknowledged that he assisted the special counsel’s office and helped identify the purchasers of some of the bank account numbers.

“Mr. Pinedo’s prompt acceptance of responsibility saved the government significant time and resources in the investigation,” prosecutors wrote in a Sept. 26 court filing.

Pinedo became the first person convicted on charges directly related to Russia’s interference campaign and the third person sentenced in a case brought by Mueller’s team.

In early April, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Alexander Van der Zwaan, a former associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, to 30 days in jail for repeatedly lying to the special counsel investigators. Last month, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was sentenced to 14 days in jail after pleading guilty to lying about his contacts with Russians.

Michael Flynn, who stepped down as Trump’s national security adviser just weeks into the administration, pleaded guilty in December to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate with the Mueller probe. Flynn, represented by Covington & Burling partner Robert Kelner, is set to be sentenced by Judge Emmet Sullivan on Dec. 18.

Two other Mueller-related defendants, Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, are awaiting sentencing for various crimes that arose from the Mueller investigation. Gates, a Trump campaign aide, pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy and false statements, and Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, pleaded guilty in September to reduced charges as part of a cooperation deal.

 

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