Accused Russian agent traded sex for influence, prosecutors say
Butina, 29, faces federal charges that she illegally conspired to establish a back channel between Russians and American politicians during the last election cycle and operated as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation in the U.S. She's scheduled to appear in Washington federal court later today.
"Because Butina has been exposed as an illegal agent of Russia, there is the grave risk that she will appeal to those within that government with whom she conspired to aid her escape from the United States," prosecutors said in a court filing Wednesday. "Butina presents an extreme flight risk."
The allegations seem as if they're ripped from popular culture, echoing facets of this year's thriller "Red Sparrow" with Jennifer Lawrence, as well as the popular FX series "The Americans." The show was inspired by a 2010 case in New York, when 10 Russian sleeper agents were arrested in the U.S. and expelled in a prisoner exchange after pleading guilty.
Butina used a U.S. citizen, who isn't named by prosecutors but matches the description of political operative Paul Erickson, to gain access to an extensive network of Americans in position to influence political activities in the country, prosecutors said. She lived with the 56-year-old man, but appeared to "treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities," the U.S. said.
"On at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special-interest organization," prosecutors said.
Butina's lawyer told a judge at a July 16 hearing that she didn't make a run for it even after her home was searched by FBI agents in April and she testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session, according to a transcript.
"She's not a flight risk," Robert Neil Driscoll said at the hearing. "She's certainly not a danger to the community."
Prior to her arrest, "we have been offering to cooperate with the government the entire time and have been met with silence," Driscoll said. There was "simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law," he said.
It was apparent Butina was getting ready to leave Washington, the U.S. said. She canceled her lease, sent $3,500 to an account in Russia and inquired about renting a moving truck, prosecutors said.
The FBI uncovered evidence that Butina appeared to be "in contact with officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives" during her time in the U.S., according to the U.S.
Butina is accused of attempting to influence American politics by infiltrating groups such as the National Rifle Association. She's the latest Russian to be charged in an expanding investigation that led to Friday's indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers who allegedly stole and disseminated emails from Democratic groups.
Butina is also well-connected to wealthy businessmen in the Russian oligarchy, according to prosecutors who allege her Twitter messages, chat logs and emails refer to a known Russian businessman with deep ties to Putin's administration and who was listed in Forbes as having a net worth of $1.2 billion.
"This person often travels to the United States and has also been referred to as her 'funder' throughout her correspondence," prosecutors said. These businessmen could be in a position to offer her safe harbor, they argued.
Butina likely was in contact with the Russian Federal Security Service, known as FSB, throughout her time in the U.S., prosecutors said. They said they found in her contact list an email account with an FSB-associated domain. During the execution of a search warrant, investigators found a handwritten note, titled "Maria's 'Russian Patriots In-Waiting' Organization," and asking "How to respond to FSB offer of employment?"
Earlier this year, FBI surveillance observed Butina having dinner with a Russian diplomat. That official, who left the U.S. in March, was suspected of being a Russian intelligence officer, according to prosecutors.
The charges against Butina were made public just hours after President Donald Trump appeared to accept assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country didn't try to influence the 2016 election.
Trump later issued a public clarification of his remarks, saying he misspoke and accepted the U.S. intelligence finding of Russian meddling in the election, although he immediately followed up by saying it could've been someone else too.
The investigation into Butina's activities began before Robert Mueller was brought on as special counsel in May 2017 and is being handled by the Justice Department's national security unit.
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