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Georgia 2018: Abrams staffer touted campaign on Russia-owned media

A high-level staffer for Democrat Stacey Abrams promoted the gubernatorial candidate on a Russian government-funded media outlet that the FBI is investigating as part of a potential Kremlin-backed operation to influence last year’s presidential election.

Marcus Ferrell, an Abrams deputy campaign manager, was interviewed on Sputnik News in August to discuss the candidate’s decision not to rebuke protests against her opponent at an Atlanta convention and her call to remove Confederate leaders from Stone Mountain.

Ferrell offered his resignation after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution posed questions about his appearance on the program. He said in a statement he resigned for personal reasons.

The show, hosted by Eugene Puryear, frequently features high-profile progressive guests and Black Lives Matter leaders. Other prominent figures have appeared on Sputnik's airwaves, including two-time Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and dozens of left-leaning activists and candidates.

The FBI is probing whether Sputnik and another outlet, the state-sponsored Russia Today, are puppets of the Kremlin trying to influence American policy.

Both outlets were implicated in a declassified U.S. intelligence report that emerged in January and accused Russia of trying to help Donald Trump in last year’s vote. The outlets call themselves legitimate news organizations.

In the Sputnik interview on the "By Any Means Necessary" program, Ferrell disclosed he worked for Abrams and his comments were non-controversial.

He talked about how Democrats can defeat Trump in 2020 and how Abrams' Stone Mountain proposal would be a “wedge issue” that black voters would remember in the May primary.

“It’s not a popular issue. It’s not a pretty issue. It might not poll well right now. But it’s an issue that’s on the minds of African-Americans and defenders of freedom in America and our allies,” he said. “I do believe it will become an issue, and I wish it wasn’t. I wish they would just take it down.”

It was one of at least three appearances on Sputnik by Ferrell, who worked as an outreach director for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid before joining Abrams earlier this year.

He is listed as a regular contributor to the show, which also features guests including Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb and a co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. (You can find the whole list here.)

The other two instances came before he formally joined Abrams’ campaign and did not mention the candidate. He was not on the show during the presidential campaign.

Abrams, a former leader of the Georgia House Democratic caucus, faces former state Rep. Stacey Evans in next year’s Democratic primary and both have sharply competing strategies and visions for the future of the party.

Ferrell did not immediately comment. Abrams campaign spokeswoman Priyanka Mantha called it a “distraction from the real issues Georgians deal with every day.” A second statement said Evans’ campaign, which did not comment, “is attempting to distract from her record by flinging mud.”

The scrutiny into Sputnik comes amid a wider investigation of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Officials are probing social media ads purchased by firms with links to the Kremlin targeting Georgia and other competitive states that seized on divisive social issues such as race and immigration.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.