Accused Russian Agent Is Ordered to Be Held in U.S. Jail

(Bloomberg) -- A Russian national and gun-rights advocate was ordered jailed in the U.S. until her trial on charges she conspired to establish a back channel between Russians and American politicians, after prosecutors said she had ties to Russia’s intelligence services and oligarchs who could offer her safe harbor.

Mariia Butina’s bail hearing in Washington offered a surprise as well: Prosecutors said they’re conducting a fraud investigation of a U.S. political operative who had lived with Butina and provided access to an extensive network of Americans in position to influence political activities in the country.

The 56-year-old American isn’t named by prosecutors but matches the description of Paul Erickson, a lawyer who’s been involved in several Republican presidential campaigns and has strong ties to the National Rifle Association. Erickson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment left on his mobile phone.

Butina, 29, appeared in federal court on Wednesday, wearing an orange jumpsuit over a white t-shirt. She pleaded not guilty to the conspiracy charge and operating as an unregistered agent of the Russian federation in the U.S.

She’s willing to help in the fraud investigation in South Dakota, her lawyer told the judge. But that wasn’t enough the persuade the magistrate to release Butina on bail.

There are “no conditions or combination of conditions” that would ensure Butina’s return to court for her trial, Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson said at the end of a two-hour hearing attended by at least two Russian consular officials. Prosecutors argued that Butina, if freed, could easily escape U.S. custody by taking refuge in the Russian embassy or even leaping into a embassy vehicle.

Sleeper Agents

The allegations against Butina seem as if they’re ripped from popular culture, echoing facets of this year’s thriller “Red Sparrow” with Jennifer Lawrence, as well as the popular FX series “The Americans.” The show was inspired by a 2010 case in New York, when 10 Russian sleeper agents were arrested in the U.S. and expelled in a prisoner exchange after pleading guilty.

“You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” a Russian official wrote to Butina in a private Twitter message, referring to the sultry spy who was arrested as part of the 2010 case, according to court papers. Like Chapman, Butina has red hair, which hung loose during her court appearance.

In another twist, Erickson was also an executive producer on the 1988 action film “Red Scorpion,” in which a Soviet special forces soldier is sent on a mission to infiltrate an African rebel army and kill its leader, according to IMDb.

Butina lived with the unidentified American but appeared to “treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” the U.S. said in a court filing Wednesday. “On at least one occasion, Butina offered” another person “sex in exchange for a position within a special-interest organization,” prosecutors said.

Butina’s lawyer, Robert Neil Driscoll, told the judge on Wednesday that she didn’t flee the U.S. even after her home was searched by FBI agents in April and she testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session. Before her arrest, Butina had offered to cooperate with the government, he added.

Driscoll said Butina wouldn’t seek protection in the Russian embassy or another diplomatic facility if freed on bail. He said she would stay in the D.C. area and submit to restrictions, possibly wearing an ankle monitor.

After Driscoll said there was no evidence Butina had contact with the Russian consulate, Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson said the government had a photo of Butina with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Butina’s lawyer said the photo was taken at a movie screening at a Russian cultural event.

Prosecutors said Butina appeared to be preparing to leave Washington. She canceled her lease, sent $3,500 to an account in Russia and inquired about renting a moving truck, they said. Driscoll said she was planning to move to South Dakota but would put those plans on hold if released.

NRA Connection

Butina is accused of attempting to influence American politics by infiltrating groups such as the NRA. She’s the latest Russian to be charged in an expanding investigation that on Friday led to the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers who allegedly stole and disseminated emails from Democratic groups.

Butina is also connected to wealthy Russian oligarchs, according to prosecutors. They say her Twitter messages, chat logs and emails refer to a Russian businessman worth $1.2 billion and with deep ties to President Vladimir Putin’s administration.

"This person often travels to the United States and has also been referred to as her ‘funder’ throughout her correspondence," prosecutors said, adding that the businessmen could help her escape.

Butina was likely in contact with the Russian Federal Security Service, known as FSB, throughout her time in the U.S., prosecutors said. They said they found in her contact list an email account with an FSB-associated domain. While executing the search warrant, investigators found a hand-written note entitled “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization,” and asking “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?”

Earlier this year, FBI surveillance observed Butina having dinner with a Russian diplomat. That person, who left the U.S. in March, was suspected of being a Russian intelligence officer, according to prosecutors.

The charges against Butina were made public on Monday just hours after President Donald Trump appeared to accept assurances from Putin that his country didn’t try to influence the 2016 election. Trump later clarified his remarks, saying he misspoke and accepted the U.S. intelligence finding of Russian meddling in the election, although he immediately followed up by saying it could’ve been someone else too.

The investigation into Butina’s activities began before Robert Mueller was brought on as special counsel in May 2017 and is being handled by the Justice Department’s national security unit and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington.

The case is U.S. v. Butina, 18-cr-00218, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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