MIAMI — The new indictment of Russian military officials who hacked Democrats during the 2016 presidential elections has Florida written all over it.
Two Florida Republicans and possibly a third — Rep. Brian Mast — play starring roles in the indictment, although none is named.
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Unlike President Donald Trump‘s former political adviser Roger Stone and political operative Aaron Nevins, Mast’s identity is the least certain of any of the Florida Republicans hinted at in the indictment. The indictment released Friday details how a dozen Russian military officers used an online persona called “Guccifer 2.0” to disseminate information they stole from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee, which was led at the time by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
Almost as soon as the indictment was released Friday, Florida Republicans, Democrats and even allies of Mast speculated that the congressman’s campaign was likely implicated — in great part because a former campaign consultant for Mast admitted last year to The Wall Street Journal and then to POLITICO that he used some of the hacked information in 2016.
Mast, through a spokesman, denied a link.
Regardless of Mast’s potential involvement, the indictment shines a new light on the depths of Russia’s election meddling as well as the weaponization of information in U.S. political campaigns.
“Even prostitutes are embarrassed by how dirty political consultants are. It’s become a business that’s 100 percent zero-sum. It’s all about the results,” said Jacob Perry, a former consultant for Mast who worked on local issues in Florida’s 18th Congressional District, which sits on the northern edge of Southeast Florida.
“If this is true, I think Brian is absolutely a victim of trusting the wrong people,” Perry said. “If this happened, it happened without his knowledge or approval. He is one of the most ethical people you will ever meet. He has zero tolerance for unethical behavior.”
The indictment is vague concerning the unnamed congressional campaign, saying only: “On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for U.S. Congress. The Conspirators responded using the Guccifer 2.0 persona and sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.”
At that point in the 2016 election cycle, first-time candidate Mast was embroiled in a six-way GOP primary, which he won Aug. 30 with 38 percent of the vote. He then defeated Democrat Randy Perkins in the general election.
Perry points out the campaign didn’t use some of the more vicious information it had against Perkins, and he said he was unaware of any hacking inquiries made by the campaign. He said he started after the primary and didn’t have contact with Mast’s former political consultant, Anthony Bustamante, who last year told reporters that he used hacked information from Guccifer 2.0.
Bustamante didn’t mention Perkins or opposition research when he spoke to reporters. Instead, he indicated he used data that helped him figure out strategies for sending mail and running TV spots.
“There was data for our campaign available, so I used it,” Bustamante told POLITICO last year after The Wall Street Journal first reported his involvement. He told the Journal that “I did adjust some voting targets based on some data I saw from the leaks.”
Then, as now, Mast’s spokesman, Brad Stewart, disputed Bustamante’s account. Stewart said Bustamante ceased being the general consultant for Mast on June 30, but he acknowledged Bustamante was paid in September for robocalls.
“There’s no actual information whatsoever linked to us,” said Stewart, blaming Democrats for spreading the story for political advantage in the district, one of Florida’s few congressional swing seats.
“A: It’s speculation it was Anthony; I have no idea if that’s the case,” Stewart said. “And B: if it was him, it was 100 percent not related to our campaign at all.”
Bustamante couldn’t be reached Friday. But the consultant who succeeded Bustamante, Jose Mallea, and political blogger Javier Manjarres, a current congressional candidate who recruited Mast to run and advised the campaign in 2016, both told POLITICO that Bustamante continued to provide input to Mast campaign manager Rocco LeDonni throughout August — despite denials from the campaign.
“I know for a fact that he [LeDonni] was talking to Anthony,” Manjarres said. “I saw texts. It was strictly campaign-related, grass roots and strategy. I don’t know why they would deny this.”
When called by POLITICO on Friday, LeDonni didn’t dispute the story about Bustamante’s help and said he would call back after checking with Mast’s congressional office. LeDonni didn’t call back.
In the fallout from the campaign, Bustamante felt Mallea ousted him from the Mast campaign and last year worked against Mallea to scuttle his candidacy for a state House seat in Miami. Manjarres, Mallea and Bustamante, in a previous interview, all said no one at the time knew the information provided by Guccifer 2.0 was from a Russian military operation. And they said that just as reporters under the First Amendment lawfully used the hacked information, so could campaign consultants.
Nevins, another Republican consultant and blogger, separately became involved with Guccifer 2.0 when he saw news reports of its information and an invitation for reporters to get the hacked information. Under his @HelloFLAnews account, he direct-messaged Guccifer 2.0 on Twitter and on Aug. 22 received “approximately 2.5 gigabytes of data stolen from the DCCC,” according to the indictment. “The stolen data included donor records and personal identifying information for more than 2,000 Democratic donors.”
“Basically if this was a war, this is the map to where all the troops are deployed,” Nevins wrote Guccifer 2.0. “This is probably worth millions of dollars.”
Nevins told POLITICO on Friday that the sheer size of the information was daunting. “I was like, holy s—, this is a lot of information, and I tried to farm it out to reporters. So District 18 [the Mast race], I sent information to TC Palm.” TC Palm is a local newspaper in the district that covers Florida’s Treasure Coast.
He also reached out to POLITICO, which wrote a story concerning the internal vetting of Democratic candidates by the DCCC.
Nevins said he “freely spoke” last year to federal investigators about his contacts with Guccifer 2.0 and said he is neither a suspect nor a target in the investigation.
Nevins said he did not communicate with Bustamante or anyone on the Mast campaign. And though Nevins is from the Fort Lauderdale area, home of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, he said the two men didn’t coordinate in talking to Guccifer 2.0.
Stone, who is under investigation in the wide-ranging probe, has denied wrongdoing but hinted he may be indicted for what he characterizes as overblown charges from an out-of-control prosecutor. In addition to communicating with Guccifer 2.0, Stone was also in communication with WikiLeaks, which is identified in the indictment as “Organization 1.”
According to the indictment, the conspirators posing as Guccifer 2.0 were in repeated contact with him about the hacked data and asked him on Sept. 9, 2016, “What do u think of the info on the turnout model for the democrats entire presidential campaign[sic].”
“Pretty standard,” Stone replied.
Stone said Friday the indictment shows no lawbreaking by him.
“As I testified before the house intelligence committee under oath my 24 word exchange with someone on Twitter claiming to be Guccifer 2.0 is benign based on its content context and timing,” Stone said in a written statement. “This exchange is entirely public and provides no evidence of collaboration or collusion with Guccifer 2.0 or anyone else in the alleged hacking of the DNC emails, as well as taking place many weeks after the events described in today’s indictment.”