A California man who pleaded guilty to identity theft as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was a self-described digital marketing strategist who once ran a website that helped people get around security measures for online marketplaces such as Amazon and EBay.
Richard Pinedo, 28, of Santa Paula, pleaded guilty this month to one count of identity fraud as part of the investigation, according to court documents made public Friday by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Though Friday’s news linked Pinedo to the ever-expanding investigation into Russia’s role in President Trump’s election night victory, his attorney painted him as an unwitting accomplice who has been cooperative ever since he was contacted by investigators.
“He was obviously shocked and his response was to acknowledge his wrongdoing, take responsibility and assist the special counsel’s office in their investigation,” attorney Jeremy Lessem said in an interview with The Times.
Mueller announced charges against 13 Russians and three Russian companies Friday, alleging they used stolen banking information, fake campaign events and hundreds of social media accounts to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
The indictment, apparently quoting internal Russian documents, said the operation began with a “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system” in general. Over time, however, its focus became bolstering Trump’s chances and disparaging his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
According to court documents, Pinedo operated an online auction service called Auction Essistance that “offered a variety of services designed to circumvent the security features of large online digital payment companies.” The company’s LinkedIn page touts Auction Essistance as a haven for users who have been unfairly banned from Amazon or EBay because of negative reviews or false allegations.
“More and more people have found out that EBay has suspended their accounts or have sided with buyers for ridiculous claims that these buyers have filed.... One negative comment or feedback on your Amazon seller account and you are banned,” the company’s online biography reads. “We are committed to helping you to get back to selling or begin to sell for first timers.”
Pinedo confessed to selling some stolen accounts to users outside the United States, including those the special counsel’s office accused of being involved in the plot to swing the election.
While the criminal charge against Pinedo says he knowingly dealt with people outside the U.S. — both in buying and selling account numbers — a law enforcement official told The Times there is no evidence that he knew he was dealing with a Russian intelligence operation.
He profited “tens of thousands of dollars” from the sale of banking information online through Auction Essistance, according to court documents.
In a statement released Friday, Lessem acknowledged his client’s guilt, but contended he had no knowledge of a Russian plot to manipulate the election.
“Through an online website, Mr. Pinedo sold bank information, which allowed individuals to fraudulently verify and establish accounts with online financial institutions. Doing so was a mistake, and Mr. Pinedo has accepted full responsibility for his actions,” Lessem said.
“However, Mr. Pinedo had absolutely no knowledge of the identities and motivations of any of the purchasers of the information he provided. To the extent that Mr. Pinedo’s actions assisted any individuals, including foreign nationals, in interfering in the American presidential election was done completely without his knowledge or understanding.”
Pinedo had no prior criminal convictions, according to court records. He is not in custody, according to Lessem, who declined to disclose his client’s whereabouts.
Lessem would not say when Pinedo became aware of the fact that he was doing business with a Russian intelligence operation. The attorney did not know Pinedo’s political views, nor did he know who his client voted for in 2016, if at all.
Lessem said Pinedo had dealings with some of the defendants listed in the indictment, but stressed that those interactions represented a small piece of his client’s overall business. Pinedo was the only employee of Auction Essistance, according to documents filed with the California secretary of state’s office.
Said Lessem: “It’s not as if everyone he was working with was part of this overall scheme. This was not the typical client of his online enterprise.”
Pinedo could serve 12 to 18 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but Lessem said many factors could lead to a different punishment. A sentencing date has not been set.
Online, Pinedo described himself as a digital marketing strategist who touted his skills at increasing website traffic for businesses, according to his LinkedIn page.
“Being able to come up with creative ideas, strategies & coming up with solutions to problems is always a big plus for me,” his online biography reads.
A photo on the LinkedIn page shows him with a wide smile and dark, slick-backed hair.
His LinkedIn page says he worked at Auction Essistance from 2012 to 2014, but federal court documents say his time with the company lasted until 2017. The company was registered with the California secretary of state’s office in 2013, based at what appears to be Pinedo’s home address in Santa Paula. The company was dissolved in February 2015, and Pinedo listed himself as the organization’s “sole member.”
The company’s website, Facebook page and Twitter account were no longer available on Friday afternoon.
Pinedo also published an e-book in 2013 titled “EBay Incognito!” described as a guide to teaching users how to operate in online marketplaces after their accounts were suspended.
According to his LinkedIn page, Pinedo was also the marketing director at a Ventura County search optimization firm named SEO Distortion from March 2014 to October 2017. The company’s listed phone number is the same as the phone number Pinedo provided on his LinkedIn page. A call to that number was not returned Friday.
Pinedo also had a brief stint as a sales associate at LA Fitness, and his online resume said he attended Ventura College, studying for a computer science associate’s degree. A college spokeswoman said Pinedo did not graduate from Ventura College.
Two unclaimed Amazon boxes and a gray cat sat Friday outside the door of the white Santa Paula residence where Pinedo lives. When approached by reporters, a man who identified himself as Pinedo’s father handed out a paper with contact information for his son’s lawyer. He declined to discuss the indictment.
The family’s neighbors also declined to comment on Pinedo’s guilty plea. A television news truck sat parked across the street from the residence for hours in the afternoon, with cameras and cellphones aimed at the door.
Los Angeles Times staff writers David S. Cloud and Joseph Tanfani contributed from Washington.
5:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Pinedo’s attorney
3:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about Richard Pinedo.
This article was first published at 2:15 p.m.