Alleged Russian agent Butina pleads guilty to engaging in conspiracy against US

Maria Butina, the 30-year-old Russian woman arrested and charged earlier this year with acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government in the U.S., pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court after previously entering a plea of not guilty.

Butina admitted in the District Court for the District of Columbia that she and an American, known in court documents as "U.S. Person 1," conspired with and acted under the direction of a Russian government official to establish unofficial lines of communications with people able to influence U.S. politics leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson said Butina sought to use those unofficial lines of communication for the benefit of the Russian Federation.

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Butina’s attorneys have previously identified U.S. Person 1 as Paul Erickson, a GOP political operative with whom Butina had a romantic relationship.

The government’s description of the Russian official matched the credentials of Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and former Russian senator who reportedly has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and alleged ties to the Russian mob, according to Bloomberg.

“Is what the government just read into the record correct,” Judge Tanya Chutkan, an Obama appointee, asked Butina on Thursday after the government read aloud the details of her offense.

“Yes,” Butina said, standing in a green prison jumpsuit with her hands clasped behind her back.

The charges against Butina were brought by the U.S. Attorney's office in the District of Columbia, not special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, who is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and possible collusion with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral MORE campaign.

As part of the plea deal, Butina has agreed to cooperate with the American government in its investigations. She is the first Russian to be convicted of trying to influence American politics before the election.

Kenerson said Butina drafted a proposal in March 2015 called the “Description of the Diplomacy Project in which Butina suggested using these unofficial lines of communication to influence U.S. foreign policy toward Russia and predicted that the candidate nominated by Political Party #1 would likely win the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

The government said she sent the proposal, which she drafted with Erickson’s help, to the Russian official who appears to be Torshin and others, and asked for $125,000 from a Russian billionaire to attend conferences and meetings with interested parties, including people at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to determine where the focus of Russian interests lie.

In 2015, the government said she traveled to attend a “Gun Rights Organization convention,” which has been identified as the National Rifle Association convention, and invited powerful NRA members to Moscow to advance her agenda.

During that December 2015 trip, the government said Gun Rights Organization members met with high-level Russian government officials, meetings that were arranged by Torshin.

The crime she pleaded guilty to in court on Thursday carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, said, however, there is no guideline range for the offense and Butina has no criminal history. He therefore said her sentence should be between no prison time and 6 months. 

Butina will likely be deported to Russia as a result of her conviction, but Chutkan said the decision on whether or when to deport her is not one she will make. She said that decision is made by other federal agencies.

In addition to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C., Butina has agreed to cooperate with other federal, state and local law enforcement authorities on “any and all matters the government deems the cooperation relevant,” accord to the plea deal. 

In return, the government has agreed to drop the second charge of acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the Attorney General. 

Along with Butina’s defense attorneys, Butina was accompanied in court Thursday by a public defender.

Last week, Chutkan appointed public defender A.J. Kramer to serve as "advisory counsel" to Butina without any explanation. In court on Thursday, Chutkan said the government had made her aware of a potential conflict of interest with Butina’s attorney.

Chutkan explained the government had recordings of telephone conversations Butina had with a journalist and that she made references to someone who could be her lawyer and knew she told other inmates to talk to the press.

Chutkan said the conversations could be seen as Butina helping her defense attorney violate the court’s gag order against litigating the case in the press.

Chutkan said if her attorney was aware the government had these recordings, it could incentivize him to recommend she plead guilty so he could avoid getting in trouble.

But she said she wasn’t going to make the finding that the gag order had been violated.

As part of the plea deal, Butina has agreed to remain in federal custody until her sentencing. Chutkan scheduled the parties in the case to return to court on Feb. 12 at 10 a.m. for a status hearing when a sentencing date will likely be set.

John Bowden conrtibuted.

Updated at 1:41 p.m.