A series of mysterious events in the case of Maria Butina, the accused Russian agent, culminated with the judge Thursday appointing her a public defender as “advisory counsel.”
The order from U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan came after a teleconference with the attorneys Thursday morning that Chutkan scheduled without public explanation Wednesday night. According to Buzzfeed, only a brief portion of the hearing happened on the record — during which Butina’s lawyer sought to cancel another hearing scheduled for later this month — before the courtroom was sealed off from the public.
Later Thursday, Chutkan ordered Butina’s lawyers to file briefs explaining why the transcripts from the sealed portion of the proceedings shouldn’t be unsealed for the public.
Butina has been represented, rather vigorously, by Robert Driscoll, a Justice Department alum who occasionally moonlights as a TV talking head. There are no motions on the docket indicating that he is seeking to withdraw from representing her. Butina has been charged with acting as a foreign agent without registering with the Justice Department. She has pleaded not guilty.
It is still possible that the public defender, A.J. Kramer, was appointed because Butina is or is about to become a pro se litigant, meaning represent herself, legal experts told TPM. Advisory counsels typically are used to help steer an unrepresented defendant through the procedures of judicial system, or can be brought in to weigh in on a specific matter in a case where the defendant is represented by other counsel. Kramer declined to comment to TPM, citing the gag order the judge imposed on the case.
It is also possible, outside defense attorneys say, that that he was appointed because of a potential conflict had arisen in the case with her current representation.
“For example, the court may say – hey, that looks like a conflict,” Alex Little, a defense attorney in Tennessee, told TPM via email.
“She may say, ‘I don’t care,'” Little, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in D.C., said. “And the court may then appoint an additional attorney as some protection that she doesn’t later (on appeal, say) change her mind and complain, seeking to vacate the conviction in the process.”
Last month, there were hints in court filings that that prosecutors and Butina were negotiating a plea deal. Also, this week it was reported by the Daily Beast that Butina’s boyfriend, American GOP political operative Paul Erickson, had been informed by prosecutors that they were contemplating bringing similar charges against him.
It is not clear if either development is related to the events in Butina’s case of the last 24 hours.