Maria Butina, Accused Of Being Russian Agent, Reaches Plea Deal With Feds

Dec 10, 2018
Originally published on December 11, 2018 9:29 am

Updated at 7:46 p.m. ET

Federal prosecutors have reached a plea deal with Maria Butina, the Russian woman who parlayed her interest in gun rights and her Republican Party connections into an unofficial influence campaign inside the U.S.

Butina has agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent on America's soil without registering as required with the Justice Department.

She faces a maximum of five years in prison but could serve far less time once she is sentenced next year.

Butina has been detained by authorities since her arrest in July and is currently being held in solitary confinement in the Alexandria, Va., detention center outside Washington, D.C.

Butina has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors, including to testify if asked in front of a grand jury.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia had no comment Monday evening on the plea deal.

Her romantic partner, Paul Erickson, is described in court papers as participating in the conspiracy and advising Butina on pressure points and Republican political figures. He has not been charged with wrongdoing. But NPR has reported that prosecutors in Washington and South Dakota, Erickson's home, have been investigating him for months.

Butina's alleged handler overseas was Alexander Torshin, a Russian government official.

He attended numerous National Rifle Association conferences inside the U.S. but is believed to be back in Russia, where media recently reported he would "retire" from his post at the central bank. Torshin is mentioned in plea documents but not by name.

Under the terms of the plea, which requires approval from Judge Tanya Chutkan, Butina will remain in federal custody and could be deported once her sentence is complete.

Butina's case attracted international attention after prosecutors accused her of attempting to use Red Sparrow-style sexual wiles to advance her Russian influence campaign.

Authorities, however, later backtracked from those claims after defense lawyer Robert Driscoll demonstrated that the ostensibly sexual allusions in electronic messages were merely jokes between Butina and a friend.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Maria Butina has reached a plea deal. She's the Russian woman accused of launching a secret political influence campaign in the United States. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Images of the red-haired graduate student posing with weapons attracted international attention. Maria Butina has been in federal custody since July. That's when the FBI arrested her for acting as a Russian agent on U.S. soil. Authorities say she hatched a plan to appeal to Republican political leaders by targeting events at the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast.

Now, after about six months behind bars, Butina has reached a plea deal with the Justice Department. She's preparing to plead guilty to a single conspiracy charge for failing to register her activities with the attorney general. The deal calls for Butina's cooperation and her testimony before a grand jury. That could be bad news for her American boyfriend. He's Republican operative Paul Erickson. Erickson's been under investigation by authorities in Washington and South Dakota for months, but he has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Prosecutors say Butina's handler was a prominent Russian central banker, Alexander Torshin. Torshin became a life member of the NRA. He briefly met Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA convention in 2016. The U.S. government eventually put Torshin on a sanctions list, and Russian media reported he recently retired from his post.

Butina is due in court Wednesday afternoon. A judge needs to approve the plea agreement and, ultimately, to decide her punishment. Butina faces a maximum of five years in prison. But with no criminal record and cooperation, she could serve far less time. The plea deal indicates she'll be deported back to Russia once she completes her sentence.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.