Calif. man ensnared in Mueller probe sentenced to 6 months in prison

Calif. man ensnared in Mueller probe sentenced to 6 months in prison
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A California man ensnared in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into Russia's election interference was sentenced on Wednesday to six months in prison, six months of home detention and two years of supervised release.

Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud seven months ago and cooperated with government investigators in the case against the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Judge Dabney Friedrich handed down his sentence in federal court in Washington, D.C. Pinedo will also have to complete 100 hours of community service and submit to computer monitoring.

Pinedo’s sentencing, which ties up another lose end in Mueller’s sprawling probe, comes not long after the sentencing of former Trump campaign adviser George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosMueller targets Stone in final push 5 things to know about new acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker Senate panel seeks interview with Steve Bannon, lawyer says MORE to 14 days in prison for lying to FBI agents investigating Russia’s efforts.

Pinedo is a rather minor player in an investigation that spans several fronts and has embroiled major figures of President TrumpDonald John TrumpPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism Trump discussing visit overseas to troops following criticism: report Retired Army General: Trump is ‘acting like an 8th grader’ in attacking ex-Navy SEAL who led bin Laden operation MORE’s 2016 campaign, as Mueller explores potential collusion between the campaign and Moscow.

His sentencing also follows other bombshell developments in the probe, including the decision by former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortMueller could turn easy Trump answers into difficult situation Mueller asks for delay in Gates sentencing: filing Mueller targets Stone in final push MORE to cooperate with Mueller’s team. 

Pinedo, who has no connection to the Trump campaign, ran a firm called Auction Essistance that helped individuals circumvent security features of online payment companies, according to court filings. Over three years, he allegedly generated between $40,000 and $95,000 by acquiring and selling bank account information. He has admitted to using stolen identities to set up bank accounts that were later used by Russians in a broad plot to interfere in the 2016 election, though his attorneys maintain Pinedo did not know he was dealing with Russians.

Pinedo and his attorneys described his involvement in the investigation as having a debilitating impact on his life and his family, resulting in death threats and harassment. 

In remarks before the court on Wednesday, Pinedo said he had been accused of being a “Russian agent” and that his personal information and his family’s address had been posted online. 

“Every knock on the door now comes with anxiety as to who it could be,” said Pinedo, who took “full responsibility” for his actions.

Federal sentencing guidelines called for Pinedo to face sentence of 12 to 18 months in prison, meaning the judge imposed a lenient sentence compared to what he could have faced. 

"This is a very, very difficult case," Friedrich said Wednesday. 

"On the one hand, you committed a serious crime," she said. "On the other hand, there are a number of significant and mitigating factors that weigh in your favor." 

Pinedo’s attorneys had asked the court to impose a non-custodial sentence, meaning one that would not involve prison time, citing his cooperation in the probe and the debilitating financial and emotional impact it has had on his life. 

Government prosecutors described Pinedo’s cooperation as significant but not rising to the level of “substantial assistance.” Rush Atkinson, one of Mueller’s prosecutors, suggested Wednesday that Pinedo provided the government with information on other Americans involved in the identity fraud scheme but not enough to generate other criminal charges. 

Atkinson also argued the government already knew much of the information Pinedo revealed about the Russian operation. Mueller’s team did not request a particular sentence, instead electing to defer to the court. 

Mueller revealed Pinedo’s guilty plea on Feb. 16, the same day 13 Russians and three Russian business entities were indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges in an elaborate scheme to use social media to interfere in the election. The Russians are linked to the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm based in St. Petersburg that purchased ads on Facebook and leveraged other social media platforms to spread divisive content to American audiences leading up to the vote. 

While they have been charged, the Russians are out of reach of U.S. prosecutors and likely to never see their day in court. 

Pinedo is the third to be sentenced in Mueller’s investigation, after Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who admitted to lying to government investigators as part of their inquiry into the foreign lobbying activity of Manafort and his longtime business partner Richard Gates, both of whom have entered guilty pleas and agreed to cooperate in the investigation.