Judge in Russian Spy Case Circles Back to Gag Order

WASHINGTON (CN) – The public could learn more about the prosecution of Russian spy Maria Butina after a federal judge indicated Monday that she will soon revisit a September gag order.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan had issued the constraint here on all parties after finding that defense attorney Robert Driscoll “overstepped” in a series of interviews with media outlets including the Russian news organization, RT, Politico and The Washington Post.

Among other extrajudicial statements, Chutkan criticized Driscoll’s public accusations that the U.S. government made false claims about Butina and “used innuendo” to taint her, as well as his insistence that Butina’s connections to a Russian cultural center were “merely social.” Regarding Butina’s emails with political campaign representatives, meanwhile, Driscoll said they indicated only that his client was a “student eager to network with Americans who shared her interests and no more.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu warned Driscoll in an August letter that local criminal rules imposed restrictions on both government and defense counsel from speaking publicly about merits of a case. 

Only weeks before during a status conference, Judge Chutkan also cautioned Driscoll about the rules of procedure. At one point, the judge asked Driscoll if he thought it was in Butina’s  “best interest to have her case tried in the press?”

Though her case is not directly tied to the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Butina is the first Russian national convicted of attempting to influence U.S. policy ahead of the race. She pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to conspiring to act as a foreign agent without registering in the United States.

During her plea hearing last week, Butina admitted to using “unofficial lines of communication with Americans having influence over U.S. politics” in order to benefit Russia.

She also admitted to working with an American political operative in order to create inroads at the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups.

Both defense attorneys and prosecutors have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to make their case for the “continuance, modification or vacating” of the gag order.

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