Maria Butina, the Russian national who ingratiated herself into U.S. conservative circles through gun rights activism, has been cooperating with the feds for months, but just days before her sentencing, a major fight has erupted over the government’s efforts to paint her conduct as part of a “spot and assess” operation that could aid Russian spies.
The fight bubbled up in dueling sentencing memos filed Friday from Butina’s attorneys and prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C.
Butina was originally charged with failure to register as an agent of Russia and with conspiracy against the U.S. In December, she reached a plea deal that had her admitting to engaging in a conspiracy not to register as an agent of a foreign country.
Her sentencing is scheduled for Friday.
Not surprisingly, her lawyers filed a sentencing memo that painted her in the most flattering light possible.
“All told, her motivations weren’t nefarious. Maria was genuinely interested in improving relations between the two countries, and she had no ill intent,” the sentencing memo said.
They are asking that she serve no additional prison time — she’s been incarcerated since her arrest last July — and she has already agreed to be deported swiftly once she’s completed her sentence.
The government, however, appears ready to throw the book at her, even though they filed with the court a separate letter that described her “substantial assistance.” They are recommending she serve an additional 18 months in prison — a recommendation that would have been 24 months had she not cooperated.
Their sentencing memo included a declaration from an ex-FBI agent and expert in “cyber security and intrusions by nation-state actors.” The ex-agent, Robert Anderson assessed Butina’s conduct as being part of a so-called “spot and assess” effort — that is, that she was allegedly helping to identify vulnerable targets in the U.S. who may susceptible to recruitment by Russian spy operations in the future.
Among the new claims made public for the first time in the government sentencing filings is that Butina, in November 2016, sought to influence the incoming Trump administration’s choice for secretary of state.
“Butina provided Russia with information that has tremendous intelligence value,” Anderson said in his declaration, adding that it was the type of information that “skilled intelligence officers can exploit for years and that may cause significant damage to the United States.”
Now Butina’s lawyers are arguing that the judge exclude for sentencing the claims about Butina’s participation in a “spot and assess” operation and to not let Anderson take the stand during the sentencing proceedings. They accused the government of “sandbagging” and rolling out a “new theory for the first time in the metaphorical bottom of the ninth inning.”
“The time for speculation and changing prosecution theories is over,” Butina’s lawyers said in a filing Sunday.
The judge, U.S. District Tanya S. Chutkan asked on Monday whether a delay in the sentencing is appropriate to let Butina fully respond to Anderson’s claims. Butina filed her opposition to such a delay on Tuesday, because it would amount to a “Pyrrhic victory,” her lawyers said.
“The defense could prevail on the merits, but Maria could serve most or all of the sentence sought by the government because of the delays caused by the government’s own conduct,” their filing said, while reiterating their calls that Anderson’s testimony be thrown out.
The government is standing by its push to include Anderson’s assessment in the sentencing proceedings. However, the prosecutors have already landed in hot water in this case before by overhyping their allegations against Butina.
Before her plea deal, as part of a bail filing, prosecutors alleged that she sought to trade sex for a job at a special interest organization. They were unable to offer additional evidence of the claim — which appeared to be based on a text exchange between Butina and a longtime friend that was obviously joke — and were forced to backtrack on the allegation, which had already made headlines.
The prosecutors were chided by the judge for “damag[ing Butina’s] reputation” and making “it very difficult to have a fair trial.”