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Dual citizen charged with acting as Russian agent in U.S.

Elena Branson is accused of corresponding with Vladimir Putin before she founded a Russian propaganda center in New York City, prosecutors said.
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Federal prosecutors charged a dual U.S.-Russian citizen Tuesday with illegally acting as an agent of the Russian government in the U.S.

In a criminal complaint unsealed in federal court in New York, the Justice Department says Elena Branson, also known as Elena Chernykh, worked as an illegal Russian agent “to spread Russia interests, including through the lobbying of U.S. Government officials in favor of Russian policy positions,” for almost a decade.

"Throughout, Branson has received funding and direction from the Russian Government, including from the Russian Embassy in the United States, and received tasking from high-level Russian Government officials and Russian Government-run organizations," the filing said.

NBC News has asked the Russian Consulate in New York for comment.

One of the officials Branson is alleged to have communicated with directly was then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom she is accused of asking for “administrative support” so she could host events at the consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington, D.C., the filing says.

It alleges that one of the ways she tried to spread Russian interests was by coordinating an effort to reach out to presidential candidate Donald Trump in April 2016 to attend an annual event known as Russia Forum New York or, if he couldn’t make it, to have one of his adult children attend.

“There is no indication that the now-former President or his children attended the referenced meeting,” the filing said.

Branson, 61, is also alleged to have tried to get Trump to attend the 2016 World Chess Championship, which was being held at New York’s South Street Seaport. Prosecutors said she emailed a Trump adviser on Nov. 10, 2016, asking that Trump, then the president-elect, attend the event. The FBI said in the court filing that it publicly released photos from the event to show it was attended by Dmitry Peskov, who is now Putin's press secretary. There is no indication that Trump attended.

Branson, who was born in the Soviet Union before she moved to the U.S. in 1991, became a U.S. citizen in 1999, according to the court filing. She set up an organization called Russian Center New York with the help of the Russian government and is alleged to have told a high-level member of a Moscow-based think tank that the center's "goals were to 'fight against' anti-Russian sentiment in the United States," the filing says.

Russian Center New York did not respond to a request for comment.

Branson was involved in multiple efforts to engage with New York state senators and New York City officials, the filing went on to say, and she is also alleged to have lobbied Hawaiian officials not to change the Russian name of a fort in Kauai.

The FBI said in the court filing that she communicated with Russian government officials on multiple occasions, including diplomats in the U.S., and that she also "participated in a scheme to submit to the U.S. Department of State information in support of visa applications for Russian officials and their associates" that she knew "contained materially false and fraudulent statements."

The FBI interviewed Branson and searched her residence in September 2020, according to the court filing, which says agents found 34 electronic devices, including 11 cellphones.

Prosecutors said Branson returned to Moscow a month later, has not returned to the U.S. and remains at large.

Prosecutors also said Branson sat for an interview on Russian television in October with Maria Butina, who was convicted in 2018 of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government in a case developed by then-special counsel Robert Mueller.

Branson told Butina that she left the U.S. after the FBI interview because she thought the “probability was very high” that she would be arrested if she stayed, according to the court filing.

Court documents show Butina tried to ingratiate herself with the National Rifle Association and that she also took part in outreach to the Trump campaign. She was deported after having served her prison sentence and was elected to the Duma — the Russian assembly — last year.