WASHINGTON (CN) – Jailed for the past month on charges that she used sex to infiltrate U.S. political circles, accused Russian agent Mariia Butina asked a federal judge Friday to release her on bond.
Signed by defense attorneys Robert Driscoll and Alfred Carry with McGlinchey Stafford, a motion to modify Butina’s detention order says the detention order against their client ignored the advice of the Pretrial Services Agency.
After interviewing 29-year-old Butina, the agency recommended that she be released under general supervision so long as she check in weekly by phone, surrender her passports and stay within the Washington, D.C., area.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson ordered Butina detained without bond pending trial, apparently persuaded by expert testimony that Butina posed a flight risk and could seek shelter at the Russian embassy or in a diplomatic car to evade court appearances and prosecution.
Driscoll and Carry argued Friday that the government’s claims about Butina’s flight risk are exaggerated and untethered from the facts.
“The government relies on innuendo and undefined phrases, soundbites and alarmist buzzwords,” the motion says. “The assertion that she was arrested for an alleged ‘role in a covert Russian influence operation in the United States’ is a war drum based on pure fiction.”
Prosecutors have accused Butina of covertly cultivating relationships with U.S. politicians and infiltrating political organizations like the National Rifle Association to bolster the Kremlin’s long-term agenda in the country.
Butina pleaded not guilty in July to conspiracy to and acting as a foreign agent.
Doubling down on their claims that Butina was in the United States as a student and nothing more, the attorneys said Butina applied to seven universities in the U.S. before settling on American University, and even considered going to law school in Russia.
“No person from the Russian government instructed her to go to American [University],” the motion says.
Attorneys Driscoll and Carry also tried to destigmatize the charges against Butina.
“Despite the patina of espionage with which the government tries to color this case, the allegations do not involve spying, tradecraft, classified information, or any other hallmarks of an espionage case,” the motion says.
There is also no allegation that Butina is a Russian intelligence asset or that she engaged in illegal activities in the United States, according to the brief, only that she failed to notify the Justice Department about her activities.
Prosecutors say that Butina’s activities were directed by a Russian official, believed to be former Russian Senator Alexander Torshin. Driscoll and Carry describe Torshin as a friend who wrote a letter of recommendation to American University on Butina’s behalf.
The government also claims that Butina viewed sex as part of her covert mission and offered to trade sex for a position with a special-interest organization.
Attorneys Driscoll and Carry say this amounts to a smear of their client’s character and reputation.
“The impact of this inflammatory allegation, which painted Ms. Butina as some type of Kremlin-trained seductress, or spy-novel honeypot character, trading sex for access and power, cannot be overstated,” the motion says.
That accusation, the attorneys noted, ended up splashed across the front pages of major national newspapers, websites and television news programs.
But Friday’s motion claims the only evidence the government has presented so far to back up its claims came from a single, 3-year-old text message exchange with a longtime friend who often drove her car.
“I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance they put me through the wringer,” the man, identified only as DK, texted to Butina after renewing her car insurance and getting the vehicle inspected.
“Sex. Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name,” Butina responded.
Driscoll and Carry describe the exchange as “innocuous” and assert “the reference to sex is clearly a joke.”
The claims against their client should be stricken, the attorneys argued, “and certainly should not weigh in favor of detention.”
While nothing can be done about sexist media tropes, the attorneys argue that the U.S. Attorney’s Office should be held to higher standards.
On Thursday prosecutors filed a letter accusing Driscoll of violating court rules that prohibit public statements made outside of court that speak to the merits of the case and the evidence against Butina.
Citing the letter and her prior warnings about trying the case in the media, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered the parties Friday to say by Sept. 9 why she shouldn’t issue a gag order.
Chutkan said she would address the matter during a Sept. 10 hearing, along with Butina’s bond motion.