WASHINGTON (CN) - Pleading guilty to conspiracy for her work as a Kremlin agent, Maria Butina agreed Thursday morning to cooperate with the U.S. government.
Butina, 30, appeared in court this morning wearing a short-sleeved, dark green button-down over a long-sleeved, white shirt with holes at the elbows. She wore her red hair in a braid that fell straight down the middle of her back as she answered questions about the agreement from U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan.
As part of her plea, Butina admitted that she built and worked connections within the National Rifle Association and other political groups to gain access to and influence over politicians in the United States. Butina did so at the direction of Central Bank of Russia Deputy Governor Alexander Torshin and with the goal of advancing Russian interests in the United States.
Back in July, federal prosecutors in Washington indicted Butina on two counts: conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and acting as an agent of a foreign government. Per the terms of the plea, however, prosecutors will drop the second count before sentencing.
When Chutkan asked Butina about her state of mind while determining if she was competent to accept the plea agreement, Butina responded, "absolutely clear."
According to the statement of offense read in court Thursday, Butina drafted a proposal in 2015 to travel to the United States and establish unofficial channels to boost Russian interests in Washington. Butina predicted the Republican Party would win the upcoming presidential election and suggested building connections with the NRA to have the ear of the incoming administration.
Butina attended the NRA's convention in April 2015, where she met leaders within the party, including one unnamed politician who announced his presidential candidacy soon after. Butina later invited "powerful" members of the NRA to Moscow, where they met with "high-level Russian government officials," according to the statement of offense.
The following year, Butina obtained a student visa to enter a graduate degree program at American University in Washington. Prosecutors say Butina did not disclose her plans to act as a Russian agent but attempted to establish a backchannel to U.S. politicians by organizing a Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast.
All the while, Butina was communicating with and receiving directions from Torshin, without disclosing her activity to the federal government, according to the statement of offense.
Butina meanwhile began a romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, a GOP political operative who is 26 years her senior. Erikson is not explicitly named in court documents, nor has he been charged, despite allegations that he helped Butina with her proposal and gave her information about U.S. politicians.
Robert Driscoll, a defense attorney for Butina with the firm McGlinchey Stafford, told Judge Chutkan on Thursday that his client’s agreement is the only one the government offered, though it changed as the two sides negotiated.
In light of Butina's agreement to cooperate with the government, Chutkan did not set a sentencing date at Thursday's hearing. Instead, the parties will meet for a status update on Feb. 12.
Driscoll and prosecutor Erik Kenerson agreed there is no directly on-point sentencing guidelines range, but Driscoll told Chutkan the most applicable guideline would recommend between zero and six months in prison.
Butina's prosecution was handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and is separate from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Before the plea agreement dominated today’s hearing, Chutkan answered one of the remaining mysteries in Butina's case: why the judge appointed public defender A.J. Kramer to Butina's team of lawyers.
Chutkan said the government indicated to her at a previous meeting that it had recorded prison calls between Butina and a journalist in which Butina referenced someone who could be her lawyer.
Chutkan said someone could uncharitably interpret the reference as an attempt to violate a gag order Chutkan has placed on the parties in the case.
While Chutkan said she had no evidence of wrongdoing by Butina's lawyers, she appointed Kramer to make sure Butina was not being pressured into taking the plea.
At one point Butina proposed Torshin attend the NRA's meeting. Butina also sent Torshin a note about how to "create a dialogue" with advisers to then-President-elect Donald Trump, but Torshin told her in November 2016 he did not think the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs would "go for it," according to the statement of offense.
Driscoll told Chutkan he would like to keep alive a subpoena served on American University, saying he hopes to use some of the information received under the subpoena at Butina's sentencing.
Chutkan said she will put a temporary hold on the subpoena and noted she has received multiple petitions from people at American University to quash the subpoena.
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