Maria Butina pleads guilty to conspiracy as agent of Russia in USA

Bart Jansen

WASHINGTON – Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring to act as an agent for the Kremlin without registering in the United States.

Under the plea agreement, Butina said she would cooperate with federal prosecutors. She signed the deal Saturday after U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan added a public defender to her legal team Friday.

Although she was charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia and not Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's team, her cooperation could shed light on Moscow's influence campaign in the United States. 

Butina, 30, was charged in a years-long effort to infiltrate political groups on behalf of the Kremlin, including the National Rifle Association. The plea agreement stated that Butina "agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official and at least one other person, for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of (the) Russian official" without notifying the Justice Department as the law requires.

Butina initially budgeted the effort at $125,000, to be obtained from a Russian billionaire, according to the agreement. The goal was "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics," the agreement said.

The Russian official, according to the description in court documents, matches Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In this photo taken on Sunday, April 21, 2013, Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow.

Butina has been in jail in Northern Virginia since she was charged in July. Prosecutors accused her of interacting with groups such as the NRA and exploiting those connections to try to advance Russian interests.

Wearing a dark green short-sleeved jail smock over a torn white long-sleeved shirt and green pants, her hair braided in a ponytail, Butina displayed no emotion while acknowledging her plea. She faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Defense lawyers led by Robert Driscoll said guidelines call for up to six months.

She traveled to the U.S. in April 2015 to attend a gun conference, with the goal of influencing members of the Republican Party. 

Butina’s Russian gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms hosted a delegation of former NRA presidents, board members and major donors in Moscow in December 2015, where she arranged a meeting between NRA insiders and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

"We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later," Butina wrote to the Russian official after the meeting, according to the plea agreement.

Butina entered the U.S. in June 2016 on a student visa to attend graduate school at American University. She helped the Russian official organize a delegation "hand-picked" by the official "to establish a back channel of communication" at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Reaction to the delegation "will be relayed DIRECTLY" to the Russian president and foreign minister, according to an email from an American working with Butina quoted in the agreement.

Prosecutors said Butina was in regular contact with her Russian backers, including Torshin, a Kremlin-linked banker sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury. At one court hearing, prosecutors showed a photo of Butina dining with a Russian diplomat suspected of being an intelligence officer.

Little new information was revealed about Butina's activities during Thursday's court hearing, though the judge described an incident that played out last week that  briefly threatened the plea agreement.

Prosecutors led by assistant U.S. attorney Erik Kenerson alerted the judge that Butina may have been in contact with a journalist while in jail in violation of the judge's gag order in the case, which prohibits the parties from making public statements. The journalist was not identified.

The flap prompted the judge to hold a telephone conference with the lawyers Friday. But Chutkan said Thursday she wasn't making a finding about whether the call violated the gag order.

The dispute was resolved by Chutkan appointing public defender A.J. Kramer to advise Butina on whether the allegation would increase pressure from her lawyers to urge her to plead guilty. Butina said she was satisfied with her lawyers and she signed the plea agreement Saturday.

Chutkan set a status conference in the case for Feb. 12 but did not immediately set a sentencing date because of Butina's obligation to cooperate with the government.