Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday for conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent in the United States.
Butina, 30, was accused of working to infiltrate Republican political circles through groups such as the National Rifle Association to bolster Russian interests.
Butina said she acted “under direction of” a Russian official whom CNN has identified as Alexander Torshin, the recently retired deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.
“Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics,” the prosecutor said in a Washington courtroom.
Her guilty plea and agreement to cooperate comes with the hope that prosecutors will ask for a reduced sentence. She agreed to turn over any evidence of crimes she is aware of, submit a full accounting of her financial assets, sit for interviews with law enforcement (and waive right to counsel during those interviews) and testify before grand juries or in trials in Washington or elsewhere.
She faces a maximum of five years in prison and will likely be deported after serving any time. A hearing was set for February to discuss a sentencing date.
In court, Butina said her mind was “absolutely clear.” This comes in contrast to her lawyer’s previous notice to the court that as of late November, she was in solitary confinement in jail and the conditions were “starting to have a profound psychological impact” on her.
Since late November, Butina has been allowed time out of the cell at night and for other activities, including for church and to visit with a Russian orthodox minister, which has helped her mental state, her attorney Robert Driscoll said.
Work to infiltrate conservative circles
The conspiracy, as prosecutors described it in court, kicked off no later than March 2015 with a draft proposal Butina wrote to Torshin and others called the “Description of the Diplomacy Project.”
It described her plan to become an unofficial conduit of communication between Russia and the US, especially through the Republican Party, at a time when the two governments were less willing to negotiate formally. She had also planned to use $125,000 from Torshin to attend conferences associated with the GOP — particularly the NRA, which she believed “had influence over” the Republican Party, she admitted.
NRA members also received her invitation to visit Moscow and meet with high-ranking Russian politicians. Torshin and “US Person 1”, whom CNN identified as Butina’s boyfriend Paul Erickson, a GOP political operative, helped her prepare for the trip. After the trip in December 2015, she said to her Russian backer, “We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
She helped a US citizen host “friendship dinners” with other wealthy and influential Americans to talk about US-Russian policy, prosecutors said and Butina admitted in court.
Butina organized a delegation and oversaw invitations to attend the National Prayer breakfast in 2017. She noted to Erickson at the time that the people were “coming to establish a back channel of communication.”
She also admitted that Torshin “did not believe” the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs would “go for it” when she asked him in November 2016 “how to create a dialogue with the then President-elect’s advisers,” prosecutors said in court, referring to advisers of Donald Trump.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Thursday that Butina took the deal “to survive.”
“She used this option to survive,” Zakharova told CNN. She has described Butina’s arrest as politically motivated.
Erickson’s defense attorney, William Hurd, attended the plea hearing. After the hearing, he said he would speak to his client before deciding whether to make a public statement. He said he did not know in which jurisdiction Butina would be helping a criminal investigation, if she does indeed cooperate with one involving Erickson.
Butina spoke from jail with journalist
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan began Thursday’s court session by revealing why Butina was appointed a public defender.
Chutkan said that prosecutors had tapes of a call Butina made from jail with a journalist and that prosecutors flagged this to the judge as a potential conflict of interest. On the call, Butina referred to someone whom prosecutors believe could be her lawyer about acting as a go-between to pass messages to journalists.
Chutkan said she did not find that Butina’s lawyer Driscoll acted improperly, but said it was why a public defender was appointed.
During the calls, the prosecutors also learned that Butina told other inmates to talk to her lawyer and to speak to the media on her behalf.