Black Hammer leader charged in Russian influence scheme

Credit: YouTube

Credit: YouTube

Atlanta group’s leader faces state charges in separate kidnapping in metro area

The leader of an Atlanta-based, far-left extremist group known for its outrageous protests and social media posts has been charged in federal court with taking part in an alleged Kremlin-backed operation to sow discord in the United States.

Augustus C. Romain, Jr., is charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and is accused of accepting money and other assistance from Alexandr Viktorovich Ionov, a Russian national with connections to the FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Fla.

Romain, the flamboyant leader of the Black Hammer Party who goes by the name Gazi Kodzo and uses gender-neutral pronouns, was already in jail in Fayette County on charges of kidnapping, aggravated sodomy, racketeering and human trafficking related to police raid on the group’s Fayetteville headquarters last July.

According to the new federal indictment, Romain allegedly conspired in 2022 with Ionov to stage pro-Russian demonstration at the Georgia State Capitol and at the San Francisco headquarters of Meta, the parent company of Facebook.

Romain and several members of the Black Hammer Party traveled to San Francisco in March 2022 to protest Facebook’s decision to censor pro-Russian posts regarding the invasion of Ukraine. Romain live streamed the protest on their social media channels. Federal authorities allege that Ionov orchestrated the protest, sending Romain $6,500 to cover costs and suggested designs for posters. Ionov allegedly reported the plan back to his FSB handler and assisted Romain in getting the protest covered by Russian language news services.

Romain allegedly worked with Ionov to stage other protests in Atlanta, including a May 8 rally for Russian Victory Day and June 23 protest at the state capitol. Federal prosecutors claim the actions amount to Romain acting as an unregistered agent for Russia.

The new indictment names Romain and the Black Hammer Party. It also charges members of the Florida-based African People’s Socialist Party and the Uhuru Movement, which allegedly conspired with Ionov on other propaganda efforts and ran its members for local political office in the Sunshine state. In addition, the indictment charges Ionov’s alleged Russian handlers, FBS officers Aleksey Borisovich Sukhodolov and Yegor Sergeyevich Popov. None of the Russian alleged co-conspirators have been arrested and they are unlikely to be apprehended.

“Russia’s foreign intelligence service allegedly weaponized our First Amendment rights – freedoms Russia denies its own citizens – to divide Americans and interfere in elections in the United States,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The department will not hesitate to expose and prosecute those who sow discord and corrupt U.S. elections in service of hostile foreign interests, regardless of whether the culprits are U.S. citizens or foreign individuals abroad.”

Ionov, who resides in Russia, was indicted last July on charges related to the alleged operation. Romain and the Black Hammer Party were not named in the indictment, but their activities matched those of an individual listed as “Unindicted Co-Conspirator 5.”

Romain and the Black Hammer Party rose to prominence amid the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests of the summer of 2020, establishing chapters around the nation and gaining a reputation for erratic behavior and poorly conceived plans.

In Atlanta, Romain and members of his group would stage loud demonstrations in Woodruff Park and around the campus of Georgia State University, issuing threats to police and local politicians through bullhorns while hitting up students for donations. Online, Romain picked fights with other leftists, cozied up to far-right groups like the Proud Boys, and spread conspiracy theories borrowed from QAnon and other extremist groups.

The group largely disintegrated last summer when a homeless man who had been recruited into the group called 911 and claimed he had been kidnapped and was not allowed to leave the group’s Fayetteville communal home. Police responded to the quiet subdivision where members lived in a rental home dubbed the “Hammer House.” Police say one member of the group took his own life rather than be arrested.

Romain has been in custody on state charges in Georgia related to that episode and held without bond since their arrest last summer. A trial in that case was scheduled to begin in February but was delayed and a new trial date has not been set. Stacey Flynn, Romain’s attorney, said her client was finally granted bond last week in the state case but officials with the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, refused to release him.

“Now I know why,” she said.

Romain was scheduled to be arraigned on the charges Tuesday afternoon in federal magistrate court in Atlanta. Flynn, who had yet to see the indictment, had no immediate comment on the new federal charge, which carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison.