Feds Flag Lawyer Comments on Behalf of Accused Kremlin Agent

WASHINGTON (CN) – The lawyer for accused Russian operative Mariia Butina received a warning Thursday that his public statements on the case flout a court order.

“Despite this clear prohibition, the government has encountered multiple recent instances of you in the press commenting about the merits and evidence of this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Saunders wrote in a 4-page letter to McGlinchey Stafford attorney Robert Driscoll.

A courtroom sketch depicts Maria Butina, in orange, as her lawyer Robert Driscoll argues with the judge during a hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington on July 18, 2018. The 29-year-old gun-rights activist is suspected of being a covert Russian agent. (AP Photo/Dana Verkouteren)

Saunders proceeds in the letter to outline several media interviews that Driscoll gave in recent weeks.

On July 28, Driscoll told Politico that the government’s claims against Butina were false, and that prosecutors were tainting his client with “‘innuendo and ‘guilt by association.'”

In the same interview, Driscoll confirmed the identity of a Russian official who dined with Butina and whose name is deliberately absent from court filings.

The government suspects this man, identified by Politico as Oleg Zhiganov, is an intelligence operative.

Zhiganov directed the Russian Cultural Centre in Washington, which U.S. counterintelligence officials have long suspected of espionage. Politico’s story says Driscoll confirmed both Zhiganov’s identity and Butina’s dinner with him at a French bistro.

Saunders took issue, however, with the fact that Driscoll reportedly “downplayed” the significance of their dinner meeting and implied that the dinner was merely a social occasion.

Driscoll declined to comment on the letter.

Prosecutors accuse his client of having built covert inroads and relationships with influential U.S. politicians and political organizations – including the National Rifle Association – to advance the Kremlin’s long-term agenda ahead of the 2016 election.

Butina, 29, pleaded not guilty in July to conspiracy to act as a foreign agent and acting as a foreign agent.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan warned Driscoll about talking to the media during a July 25 hearing. After saying she would prefer not to impose a gag order on the case, Chutkan followed up with a comprehensive protective order earlier this month.

Given the limited jury pool in the District of Columbia, Chutkan had questioned Driscoll’s wisdom in trying the case in the press.

Thursday’s letter says the government might be pushed to request a gag order.

“If the government continues to encounter evidence of further violations of the rule, the government may seek relief from the court,” the letter says.

Driscoll maintains that Butina is simply a foreign student who came to the United States to earn a master’s degree.

Driscoll also contends that her relationship with Alexander Torshin, who is not named in the indictment against Butina but is believed to have been her handler in the Russian government, was one of mentorship.

Politico reported on Aug. 14 that multiple sources close to the investigation confirmed that Torshin is the Russian official the indictment describes.

Butina, an avid gun-rights advocate who launched her own pro-gun group in Russia, viewed Torshin as helpful to raising her, Driscoll told Politico for the Aug. 14 story.

During the July 25 hearing, Driscoll said he airs his views in the media to correct misinformation about his client, including reports that she trained as a spy in Russia and was willing to trade sexual favors for a position with an unnamed American special interest organization.

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