Accused Russian spy Maria Butina appears to reach plea deal
Maria Butina, an accused Russian spy who nuzzled up to the National Rifle Association before the 2016 election, appears to have reached a plea deal with the Justice Department, according to a new court filing in her criminal case.
Her attorneys and prosecutors filed a two-page request on Monday for a “change of plea” hearing before a federal judge as soon as Tuesday. “The parties have resolved this matter,” the filing in DC federal court said Monday morning. Butina’s case was brought by federal prosecutors in DC and not by Robert Mueller’s team in the special counsel’s office.
A plea hearing has not yet been set. The notice Monday comes after several weeks of hints that Butina might negotiate an end to her case — and after bumps in the case where federal prosecutors, at the height of attention on Russia’s influence in American politics, accused the former graduate student of infiltrating Republican organizations in order to advance Russian interests.
Until now, Butina, 30, maintained her innocence and insisted she was simply a foreign student interested in bettering relations between the US and Russia. Butina previously pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy and a second count of acting as an agent of a foreign government when she was arrested in July.
Her case first became public amid a furor of US-Russia developments. She was arrested two days after the Justice Department separately indicted Russian military intelligence for hacking the Democratic Party, and her case became public the same day President Donald Trump met with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, and declined to endorse US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Butina’s case at first appeared to allege she attempted to do just that — with prosecutors suggesting she offered sex to gain political access and sought out Trump campaign officials. But prosecutors later admitted they made an error in interpreting the text messages they used as evidence to support their claim that she was trading sex for access, drawing a rebuke from the judge overseeing the case.
At a bail hearing in July, in which a judge determined she should be jailed to avoid her fleeing to Russia with the help of Russian diplomats, her attorney argued that her case shouldn’t be a proxy fight for US-Russian relations.
It is still unclear if Butina fits into a broader picture of investigations into Russian infiltration in US politics, however, or if she will agree to cooperate in other federal investigations as part of her plea deal.
Prior to her arrest, Butina signaled she would be willing to cooperate with investigators on other probes, such as a fraud investigation in South Dakota into her boyfriend, the American conservative political operative Paul Erickson. Immediately after her arrest, she became unwilling to help.
Prosecutors in their criminal complaint accused Butina of ingratiating herself with politically powerful Americans and groups, including the NRA, and exploiting those connections to try to advance Russian interests. They alleged she was in regular contact with her Russian backers, including Alexander Torshin, a Kremlin-linked banker who has been sanctioned by the US Treasury and that she made contact with Russian intelligence. At one court hearing, prosecutors showed a photo of her dining with a Russian diplomat just north of the embassy just before that man, a suspected intelligence officer, left the US amid a purge of Russian agents.
Prosecutors said Torshin compared her to Anna Chapman, another accused Russian spy who was deported from the US in a prisoner swap in 2010, and that she tried to establish “back channel” lines of communications with American politicians and met Republican leaders as “a representative of informal diplomacy” before the 2016 election.
The contacts with Americans involved in politics lasted throughout her tenure as a graduate student at American University, according to prosecutors. They had cast her studies as little more than a cover for her spy work.
By changing her plea, Butina will likely be forced to return to Russia upon release from jail. She is currently being held in solitary confinement in a northern Virginia jail. She and her lawyer have repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, argued that she should be released on house arrest or at least moved out of solitary confinement.
Even under scrutiny from federal investigators, Erickson has continued to visit Butina in jail. He has not been charged with a crime.
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