WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge lit into prosecutors Monday for starting their case against accused Russian agent Maria Butina with false claims that she offered sex for a position with a political organization.
The admonishment came one day after attorneys for Butina groused about a filing in which the government walked back only some of the tawdry sex claims against their client. Though Butina’s first name is spelled Mariia in charging papers, her defense uses the alternate spelling.
Butina is not charged with any crimes related to her sex life, but prosecutors have portrayed the 29-year-old in its court filings as willing to trade sex for political power.
Tamping down those allegations Friday in an opposition brief, the government acknowledged that it offered a “mistaken” interpretation of text messages that Butina exchanged three years ago with a longtime friend who handled public relations for the pro-gun group Butina founded in Russia, and who frequently drove her car.
“I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance they put me through the ringer,” wrote the man, identified only as DK, in a text after renewing Butina’s car insurance and getting a vehicle inspection.
“Sex. Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name,” Butina wrote back.
For months, Butina’s defense attorneys at McGlinchey Stafford have complained bitterly about the focus on their client’s sex life, insisting that the notion stems wholly from the skewed take on an “innocuous” joke.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said Monday it took her all of five minutes to review the communications and determine they were jokes.
“It was apparent on their face,” Chutkan said during a 45-minute hearing.
Chutkan said Butina’s attorneys are right about the allegations concerning their client’s sex life.
“Those allegations are notorious, have received a lot of attention, and have damaged her reputation,” the judge said.
Such allegations also bear upon the ability of Butina to receive a fair trial in Washington, D.C., where the jury pool is small, she added.
On the other hand, Chutkan said that the continual statements defense attorney Robert Driscoll has made to the press are equally damaging.
“I do find that your comments have crossed the line,” Chutkan said in court, addressing Driscoll.
From the bench Chutkan issued a gag order barring either party from speaking publicly about the evidence or merits of the case.
Chutkan also on Monday denied Butina’s bid to be released from jail on bond. Butina has been detained since July 18, when a magistrate judge determined she posed a flight risk.
Saying she cannot imagine a scenario where it’s not possible for Butina to be released, get into a diplomatic car and then fly away, Chutkan said she agreed with the magistrate judge’s determination.
“High-intensity supervision won’t stop that,” Chutkan said.
In its Friday filing, the government had flagged Butina’s relationship with GOP operative Paul Erickson as evidence of her cunning. Erickson is 27 years Butina’s senior, but Driscoll maintains that the pair’s relationship was legitimate.
To undercut the government’s assertions about the nature of Butina’s relationship with Erickson, Driscoll asked Judge Chutkan on Monday for permission to play three videos during the hearing.
Chutkan balked at the short notice, however, saying she does not accept submissions hours before proceedings, especially when the other party hasn’t had a chance to review them.
Rather than play the videos in court, Chutkan described one video as portraying Butina and Erickson lip syncing in a recording studio to the theme song of the Disney film “Beauty and the Beast.”
The other two videos contained happy birthday wishes to Erickson from Butina’s parents.
“I’m not sure what on earth their relevance is to Ms. Butina’s risk of flight,” Chutkan said.
Prosecutors have argued that Butina “expressed disdain” at the thought of continuing to live with Erikson, but Driscoll said in a Sunday filing that the government has no evidence to undermine the legitimacy of the pair’s relationship.
The government rejected this claim in their Friday brief, however, by noting that Butina “recently offered to provide information to the government about [Erickson’s] illegal activities.”
Here too Driscoll and co-counsel Alfred Carry skewered the government’s portrayal of this development.
“The government’s attempt to punish Maria for choosing to cooperate with a federal investigation-like a gang member would punish a witness for snitching-is jaw dropping,” the filing states. “The court should deny the government’s invitation to endorse its ‘snitches get stitches’ argument as unlawful and a wrongful contention that providing evidence or testimony to the government is disloyal rather than upstanding.”
Erickson has not been charged with any crimes in the investigation.
The Sept. 9 filing by Butina’s defense team also says the government misrepresented the type of visa Butina applied for, having previously represented in court that she sought a tourist visa that would allow her to come and go from the United States.
In reality, Driscoll and Carry say she received a visa that authorizes graduated students to work in the United States for a year to gain work experience relevant to their education.
That, they argue, undermines the government’s claim that she will flee to Russia if released on bond.
“Both of these fabrications made in open court are either the product of a stunning disinterest in reading the documents already in the government’s possession or a craven willingness to mislead the court-and the public-in an attempt to detain a woman convicted of no crime,” the filing says.
Attorney Driscoll did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Butina appeared in court Monday wearing a green jumpsuit with a white undershirt. Her long, red hair was pulled back into a braid and she wore black, thick-rimmed glasses.
The 29-year-old is charged with working as an unregistered, covert foreign agent under the direction of a Russian official identified by Driscoll as Alexander Torshin, whom defense attorneys claim is just a friend and mentor to Butina.
Torshin, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for working to advance the Kremlin’s alleged malign activities.
Butina is accused of building relationships with influential American politicians and political groups, under Torshin’s direction, to establish back-channel communications and gather information for the Kremlin.
Prosecutors say Butina has ties to Russian intelligence and made inroads with an unnamed gun rights organization believed to be the National Rifle Association, along with the National Prayer Breakfast as part of an effort to advance the Kremlin’s long-term agenda ahead of the 2016 election.
Butina meanwhile claims she is just a student and has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to act as a foreign agent and acting as a foreign agent.
Defense attorney Carry said Monday they plan to file a motion to dismiss the charges against Butina by Oct. 26. The next status conference in the case is scheduled for Nov. 13.