WASHINGTON, D.C. – Accused Russian agent Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court today to one conspiracy charge, and has agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
Butina, appearing in court in a green jumpsuit, admitted to one count of conspiracy. As part of the plea agreement with the government, prosecutors dropped the other count in the indictment originally brought against her, and agreed not to prosecute her for any other crimes they were made aware of during their plea discussions.
A status hearing was set for Feb. 12, 2019 without any sentencing date set for the duration of her cooperation.
The conspiracy charge brings with it a maximum five year sentence, but, according to the plea agreement, her attorneys estimate that the sentencing guidelines that will be recommended to the judge will be 0-6 months incarceration. Prosecutors in the plea agreement don’t commit to a sentencing guideline estimate. Depending on how helpful Butia’s cooperation is to prosecutors, they may also file an additional letter suggesting the judge lessen that sentence. Butina also faces the possibility she will be deported after she serves any prison sentence the judge choses to impose.
Butina was arrested in July 2018 over allegations that she failed to register with the attorney general as an agent of the Russian government while infiltrating the National Rifle Association and National Prayer Breakfast. She initially pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Since then, her attorneys have struck a pugnacious tone in court filings, while the Kremlin has called her a “political prisoner” and accused Washington of violating her human rights.
Also revealed at the beginning of the hearing was the reason that Judge Tanya Chutkan mysteriously appointed a public defender to serve as an advisory counsel to Butina. She had held a mostly private teleconference last week regarding concerns raised by the government that there might be a conflict of interest issue because prosecutors had evidence — in the form of taped conversations — that Butina spoke with a journalist from jail, potentially in violation in of a gag order in the case.
Chutkan said she had not nor did she intend to make a finding on whether the gag order had been violated by Butina or her attorneys, but had appointed public defender A.J. Kramer so that the potential for a violation being found woudln’t influence Butina’s decision to plead guilty. Kramer told the court she had met with Butina before she signed the plea agreement, and Butina confirmed that she was waiving any conflict.
The judge, before proceeding with the mechanics involved in accepting Butina’s plea, also brought up a request that Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, made last month. Driscoll had asked that Butina be transferred to the general population of the jail where she is being held, as her detention status has her segregated from the rest of those incarcerated.
The filing claimed she was suffering a “profound” psychological impact from her lack of human contact and stimulation, and the judge, who had denied that request, asked if Driscoll’s opinions on her mental state had changed. Driscoll said accommodations had been made since that filing to allow her out of her cell more often and that Butina “is doing well mentally.”
Butina appeared in court Thursday with her hair — a duller shade of red — in a braid. There was a hole by her left elbow in the white long-sleeved shirt she wore under her jumpsuit. She was mostly serious faced and showed no emotion as she answered the judge’s questions about the plea.
In a surprising turnaround for the gun-toting Siberia native, she has struck a deal to cooperate with federal investigators.
Erik Kenerson, an assistant U.S. Attorney from the U.S. Attorney’s office, read from a statement of offense that Butina agreed to which outlines the conspiracy to develop a “backchannel” line of communications with people connected to U.S. politics, without notifying the Attorney General.
In the statement, Butina admitted to working with Russian politician and central banker Aleksandr Torshin from March 2015 “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.”
Torshin – a lifetime NRA member – reportedly retired last month.
That same month, Butina wrote a policy paper titled “Description of the Diplomacy Project,” suggesting that Russia “could use unofficial channels of communication” to influence U.S. foreign policy towards Moscow.
“Further, Butina opined that the circumstances were favorable for building relations with a certain U.S. political party,” the filing reads. Both in court and in the filings, prosecutors refer to what is apparently the GOP as “Political Party #1.” The president – referred to last week as “Individual 1” in a separate case, has not yet commented.
After sending the proposal to Torshin and others, Butina requested that an unnamed “Russian billionaire” pay her $125,000 to attend a series of conferences that Butina identified in the proposal and to “determine where the focus of Russian interests lies [sic] in cooperating with the US.”
Prosecutors write in the filing that Butina knew that Torshin “sometimes acted in consultation” with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in one case telling Butina that he did not think the MFA would “go for it” on an attempt to “create a dialogue with the then-President Elect’s advisors.”
Butina’s longtime boyfriend – GOP operative Paul Erickson – is reportedly a focus of the probe.
Throughout the statement of offense, Erickson appears as “U.S. Person 1,” working with Butina to establish contacts with the Republican Party and NRA, including organizing a Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast.
Butina wrote to Erickson that the Russian officials selected to come were invited “to establish a back channel of communication.”
Erickson helped Butina target Republican officials and pave the way for access to an unnamed “”wealthy and well-connected U.S. person” who hosted “friendship dinners where other wealthy and influential Americans discussed U.S.-Russia relations.”
Butina ran much of her infiltration campaign while studying at a master’s program at American University, appearing at NRA events and asking a question of then-candidate Donald Trump in a now-infamous video.