Felicia Cowden objects accuracy of Branson ties, allegations
LIHU‘E — Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against Elena Branson, 61, a dual citizen of Russia and the U.S., for acting as an illegal Russian agent in the United States, in which she lobbied a Kaua‘i County councilmember.
Branson, also known as Elena Chernykh, had allegedly advanced the interest of the Russian government, and has been receiving funding from high-level Russian officials while being tasked with advancing the foreign government.
Among charges were failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, conspiring to commit visa fraud and making false statements to the FBI, according to the complaint. Branson, who left the U.S. for Russia in 2020, is at-large.
“As alleged, Branson engaged in a wide-ranging influence and lobbying scheme with funding and direction from the Russian government — all while deliberately leaving the American people in the dark,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a release. “The department will continue to expose these serious crimes and shine a light on foreign malign influence.”
Among those accounts in the complaint is Branson’s coordination in lobbying Hawai‘i officials to retain the name of Waimea’s Russian Fort Elizabeth and organizing a trip for Hawaiian officials to Moscow to meet with high-ranking Russian personnel on this matter.
In 2018, the complaint states Branson emailed “Councilmember-1,” representing herself as the chair of the Russian Community Council of the USA, stating the concern to renaming “Russian Fort Elizabeth” to “Pa‘ula‘ula.”
The DOJ complaint alleges this email began back and forths between Kaua‘i County Councilmember Felicia Cowden and Branson, and Branson and Russian diplomats over the course of the next six months, including Branson’s organization of a trip to Russia for a group of Hawaiians in 2019.
In a statement to The Garden Island, Cowden, who was elected in December 2018, objected to the accuracy of reports connecting her to Branson.
“I do not have ties to Ms. Branson and can neither confirm nor deny the details of her life. I met her in December of 2018 in the first weeks of my time in office. This brought me into a State Parks working group for the Fort Elizabeth Park in Waimea in an informal facilitation role between the Hawaiian cultural group at the invitation of some of our Russian-American citizens. The new name of Pa‘ula‘ula was agreed upon by all present stakeholders in the February 2019 park working group meeting.
“Confusion and friction developed about an upcoming Russian American event slated for the fall on Kaua‘i as the third in a series of conferences. In May 2019, I was among three Kaua‘i members of the Pa‘ula‘ula/Fort Elizabeth State Park’s six-member working group that attended the Smithsonian’s Fort Ross Dialog event in Vologda, Russia, to understand the intention of a proposed second fall conference on Kaua‘i that did not happen, as a result of our trip.
“It has been an honor to be a councilmember representing all of Kaua‘i. I am eager to run again. My approach to solving community concerns often involves direct facilitation that can require courage and involvement. This experience, which began almost immediately after taking office, was an extreme learning opportunity. Were I to be confronted with such a challenge again, I would have chosen a less-naive strategy and would not have gone. I apologize for any loss of confidence it may have inspired in my constituents.”
In early 2021, the county’s Board of Ethics fined Cowden $500 for unintentionally violating the county’s Code of Ethics.
A 2019 Board of Ethics complaint alleged that Cowden had used her role and position as a councilmember to secure the benefit of an expense-paid trip to attend the Vologda conference, and for having county staff use council letterhead to urge others to attend the conference, “which gave the impression attendance at the conference was being promoted by the Kaua‘i County Council,” that complaint said.
Cowden denied these allegations but paid the fine. The Board of Ethics did not go through a contested-case hearing.
Back in 2021, Cowden told The Garden Island she was acting as a cultural bridge between the Hawaiian and Russian immigrant communities when an invitation to attend that conference in Russia came to several community members cleaning up the park.
In the week before that 2019 trip, Cowden said three people suddenly could not attend, with issues ranging from not being able to secure a passport to an emergency medical issue. Cowden joined the group as a citizen, not as a councilmember, she said then.
According to the DOJ complaint, the FBI recovered a card that Cowden allegedly wrote to Branson, thanking her for “welcoming the people from Kaua‘i.”
The card also contained a post-it note that said, “I am not coming or communicating because I am being watched. It feels wrong for me to be involved that way.” On the back of the note, it says, “It is on the American side.”
“Being raised in the Cold War, I was afraid to go on the trip, which I expressed in a card,” Cowden said. “I had a nervous reaction to what would be required of me during the trip and potential reporting after the trip.”
On Wednesday, Cowden attended the council’s regularly scheduled meeting.
Mayor Derek Kawakami’s Chief of Staff Sarah Blane said he had no comment at this time. Blane said that county administration has no authority to investigate a councilmember’s actions.
“Similarly, the administration cannot and does not interfere with the Board of Ethics process,” she said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro did not provide comment.
Sabrina Bodon, editor, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you Felicia for always taking the extra work to try to bring people together. Your commitment to Kauai always amazes me. We support you!!
Mahalo KE AKUA for the truth….
It appears now that many of Kauai residents were never in the dark and this Council member, by her own admission and evidence of the FBI is sealing her fate….
We must all be PONO in our words and actions because what is personal is political….
I stand firmly with the peaceful and lawful nation of Hawai’i.
Kauai County Council member has ties with Russian foreign agent.
Hey Felicia, sounds like grounds for a resignation.
I don’t see how you can say you “don’t have ties with Ms. Branson”. You DO.
Being elected as a council member should come with a requisite of leaving the naivete at the door, especially when it comes to dealings with Russia.
Cowden facilitates community disputes on her weekly radio program. She said yes when asked to dialogue between those wanting to commemorate Russia’s moment in Hawaiian history and native Hawaiians with painful memories of colonization. She accepted an invitation by a Russian cultural organization the Russia Center, and American University, our foremost school for diplomats, to go to a follow up conference in Vologda, Russia
She apprised the Ethics Committee before going. She went as a private citizen.
This guilt by association smear, timed to accompany the Russian invasion of Ukraine, doesn’t meet the journalistic standard TGI should aspire to.
Kip, are you speaking from first hand involvement in the matter or from hearsay?
A radio personality turned politician who airs disputes online/onair…. come on? Only on Kauai, right. No conflict of interest or security for the 99.9 % of people who are ripped off by a county Council member being AWOL from doing her job but still paid handsomely.
Oh, are you also friends with the Russian translator from Kauai who accompanied the group who calls herself Lana Anderson?
Surely we have not heard the end of this investigation and the financial information about the actors…..