Attorneys spar over evidence in case of alleged Russian agent

Attorneys spar over evidence in case of alleged Russian agent
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Attorneys for alleged Russian agent Maria Butina were back in court Wednesday arguing over what evidence in the trial should be protected from public viewing.

Prosecutors said they have more than 1.5 million files that are ready to be turned over to the defense now, and another batch of files that will be ready in two weeks. But they are having trouble coming to an agreement with opposing counsel on a protective order.

Thomas Saunders, a Department of Justice lawyer, said in court Wednesday the defense wants “free reign” over the evidence produced in discovery.

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Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll argued his client should have unprotected access to materials that were previously in her possession, like her diary.

Driscoll said just because the materials are now in the possession of the government that doesn’t mean Butina loses her First Amendment right to do with them what she wants.

Butina, 29, appeared before the court again Wednesday in an orange prison suit. The former American University student has been indicted on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent to the Russia Federation. She has pleaded not guilty.

Saunders said the material needs to be shielded to protect ongoing investigations and expressed concerns to the court that Driscoll will share unprotected materials with the media.

He noted that Driscoll has already appeared several times on cable TV news, including CNN and FOX, during which he violated court rules by making public statements about the evidence in the trial and the merits of the case.

“There is a line and the line has been crossed repeatedly,” he said.

Federal prosecutors alleged Butina worked with a Russian official -- widely reported to be Russia Central Bank Deputy Governor Alexander Torshin -- to influence U.S. politics through personal connections and special interest groups like the National Rifle Association.

In a TV interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week, Driscoll said the messages the government has between Torshin and Butina have been taken out of context.

“They were gun rights advocates together and were friends,” he told Cooper.

“There’s Twitter direct messages about picking up toothpaste in America, there’s direct messages with pictures of kids, dogs and everything else. Both had an affinity for better Russian-American relations, but that certainly wasn’t the purpose of her trip to the U.S. that was something they discussed once in awhile.”

In court Wednesday, Judge Tanya Chutkan, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, agreed with federal prosecutors that there are limits to how much of a case can be discussed in the media.

She asked Driscoll if he thinks it’s in his client’s best interest to try her case in the press.

Driscoll countered that his statements are in response to incorrect media reporting.

He said he has to “zealously” represent his client and the appearances he’s done are an “eye drop” in the bucket of negative press against Butina.

Driscoll said allegations that Butina traded sex for a job has become a main issue in the media. Federal prosecutors alleged in court filings before her detention hearing that Butina offered someone other than her boyfriend sex in exchange for a position with a special interest organization.

Driscoll said he doesn’t know what the government is talking about.

Chutkan cautioned Driscoll moving forward. She said she doesn’t want to have to impose a gag order, but will entertain a motion for one if she thinks he’s crossed a line.

As for the protective order, she seemed unconvinced that any records previously in Butina’s possession should be exempt from a protective order.

Driscoll noted that Judge T.S. Ellis, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, rejected a  blanket protective order in the case against President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

But Chutkan dismissed that example, saying she doesn’t know the specifics of that case, and told Driscoll the exemption he’s seeking “probably isn’t going to fly.”

She ordered the government to file it’s proposed protective order by Aug. 8 and for Driscoll to file his objections or proposed changes to it by Aug. 15. She then scheduled a status conference in the case for Sept. 10.

Driscoll said he is planning to file a request for the court  to reconsider a magistrate judge’s decision to keep Butina detained while she awaits trail. She is currently being held without bond.

Chutkan said a hearing on that motion will be held on Sept. 10 following the status conference.

Leaving court, Driscoll was swarmed by reporters. He gave a brief statement outside the courtroom staying he believes his client will prevail. He was then asked if he has anymore planned TV appearances.

“The judge talked about the local rules about talking to the press," he said. "I’m done."

Updated: 1:46 p.m.