Prank phone calls are a childhood rite of passage. Is your refrigerator running? (Well, then you better catch it.) Do you have Prince Albert in a can? (Better let him out!)
But despite the efforts of bored kids in small towns, radio DJs have become the world’s most prolific prank callers, often turning their talents on political figures. A Canadian DJ once got Queen Elizabeth II on the line. A Miami radio station got hold of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by pretending to be Fidel Castro, and then reversed the prank by getting on the line with Castro while pretending to be Chavez. Castro started cursing when he found out he had been pranked.
And last week, Russian pranksters Vladimir “Vovan” Kuznetsov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, who previously goosed Elton John and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, set their sights on Texas governor and current Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Perry is one of those Trump administration officials who Russian and Ukrainian news hounds are aware of. Energy issues are at the heart of the conflict between the two countries, and the U.S. Department of Energy has been working with the the Ukrainian government to develop “winter action plans” to help the country survive “possible disruptions.” In non-government speak, that means they are preparing for the possibility that Russia will cut off the Ukraine’s electricity and natural gas.
Kuznetsov and Stolyarov called Perry pretending to be Ukrainian Prime Minister Voldoymyr Groysman, telling the secretary that the Ukrainian president had invented a new fuel made of home-brewed alcohol and pig manure. If just getting through to Perry wasn’t enough, the Russian online news agency PravdaReport reported that Perry had fallen for a pig poo prank: “Vovan and Lexus also told Perry about the new biofuel, which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko invented himself . . . In response, Perry requested detailed information about the “scientific development.””
The national news media jumped on the story that the rube from Texas was taken again. “Listen to Russian pranksters trick Rick Perry into a conversation about pig manure,” gloated the Washington Post. A video from USA Today declared that Perry “ended up talking about pig poop. Yeah, you heard it right. Pigs.” And then there was Vanity Fair’s, “Oops: Rick Perry Tricked into Discussing Energy Policy with Russian Pranksters,” which noted that “the former Dancing with the Stars contestant is still getting up to speed.”
Some of the stories on Perry mentioned others who had been similarly pranked by the pair, but I saw no mention of past accusations that Kuznetsov and Stolyarov have possibly been operatives of Vladimir Putin. There are some in Europe who believe they are part of a kompromat operation, or a program designed to compromise influential figures by creating bad publicity or through blackmail. It’s an accusation the pair has denied.
In the call to Elton John, they pretended to be Putin in an effort to get John to tone down his rhetoric criticizing Russia’s anti-gay policies. The call to the Turkish president involved asking him to apologize for Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter aircraft.
Probably the most telling incident, as reported by the Guardian, was a prank they pulled to get Nadezhda Savchenko to halt a hunger strike. The Ukrainian Savchenko was on trial in Russia for killing two Russian journalists, and Kuznetsov and Stolyarov made a phone call as Poroshenko, trying to convince Savchenko’s lawyer to tell her she needed to drop her hunger strike for the good of the nation. After the prank went public, the lawyer accused them of working for the Kremlin and Russian security services. Stolyarov told the Guardian they work for themselves and no one else.
Audio of the pranksters’ phone call with Perry was picked up by the U.S. news media from PravdaReport, which is owned by Pravada Ru. Foreign Policy magazine described Pravda Ru in 2012 as a “combination propaganda mill/supermarket tabloid run by Vadim Gorshenin, an underling of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.” PravdaReport is a descendant of Pravda, which was the official newspaper of the Communist party for decades, but was sold first to some Greek investors and then to Gorshenin’s holding company. Pravda means “truth” in Russian.
Let’s look at what was happening in the United States at the time of the call: Congress was preparing to vote to extend sanctions against Russia for the invasion of the Ukraine, recently adding Russia’s role in the conflict in Syria and the country’s meddling in the U.S. election as rationale for the sanctions. Putin responded by ordering the United States to remove 755 diplomats from Russian soil.
So was the Kuznetsov and Stolyarov call to Perry a kompromat operation? Who knows? But as we say sometimes in Texas, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, well, then it might be a duck. As the Guardian noted in its story on the pranksters:
The pair say repeatedly that they have no political agenda, and point out that they have pranked footballers, television presenters and other apolitical figures. But there is no escaping the fact that the vast majority of victims in their political stunts are Ukrainians, and their work often appears to align remarkably closely with the Kremlin’s goals or obtaining information that might be useful to it.
A Western-owned newspaper for English speakers in Russia, the Moscow Times, reported in 2016 that the pair is “Happy to Be a Weapon: Russian Prank-Callers Target Kremlin Opponents.” “Easy access to presidents and the obviously pro-Kremlin nature of their stunts have prompted much speculation that Kuznetsov and Stolyarov are, in fact, Kremlin stooges under instruction,” the story said. Again, they denied it, but expressed Russian patriotism and an allegiance to Putin. “We’d like to meet Putin if anything,” says Kuznetsov. “We don’t want to be a weapon in the hands of Russia’s enemies.”
The U.S. national news media ignored the possible kompromat angle in the Perry prank call, rushing to portray Perry as the hayseed he acted like while hoofing to the Green Acres theme song on Dancing with the Stars. Lord knows the farm boy from Haskell has given his detractors a hay bale or two to use against him.
But what was also missed was the fact that Perry might have found a fuel made from alcohol and pig manure credible because, contrary to popular belief, such a thing does exist. It is called ethanol. Every gas pump I know has the phrase on it, “Contains less than 20 percent ethanol.” I know most people associate ethanol production with corn, but it’s also made from biomass, which often is animal manure.
North Carolina State University investigated the conversion of swine waste to fuel in 2001. In California, waste from San Joaquin Valley cows is being converted into electricity. Just last year, National Geographic published a story called “Harnessing the Power of Poo: Pig Waste Becomes Electricity.” The Texas Department of Agriculture in 2010—when Perry was still governor—produced a report on the possible conversion of manure to energy, estimating that there were 404,399 cattle and 19 million poultry animals in Texas that could produce manure for bioenergy. Although the report included a mention of pig manure, it did not estimate how many pigs there are in Texas.
As Texas governor, Perry supported biomass conversion that involved wood chips. Also, in 2008, I broke a story in the Houston Chronicle about how chicken magnate Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim had paid $9,000 in airfare and donated $25,000 to Perry’s campaign fund to seek a waiver to federal ethanol mandates, which Pilgrim blamed for high feed prices that were driving him out of business. Pilgrim recently died at the age of 89.
There’s not a corn farmer or livestock producer from Iowa to Texas who would have thought it far-fetched for Perry to talk to a head of state about converting manure to fuel or electricity—especially when Perry is trying to help said head of state avoid possible Russian energy threats. This may be subtle, but the snarky and disdainful reporting on Perry and the pig poo is the very thing that makes people in the fly-over states of middle America mistrust the East Coast media. But it also has the effect of undermining Perry’s credibility at home and abroad, the very kind of thing Putin might want in a kompromat operation against the U.S. secretary of energy.
With the House, Senate, and a special prosecutor investigating whether Russia tried to meddle in the 2016 election or colluded with the Trump campaign, how could so many smart people in Washington miss the possibility that the prank call was meant to harm Perry’s standing?
Yes, Perry was pranked. Put a whoopee cushion in his chair. Take a hand buzzer with you if you ever get to meet him. Just remember, maybe Rick Perry wasn’t the only one who got punked.