Alleged Russian agent Maria Butina had ties to Russian intelligence agency, prosecutors say
WASHINGTON - The Russian woman arrested this week on charges of being a foreign agent had ties to Russian intelligence operatives and was in contact with them while in the United States, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
Maria Butina, 29, also was also engaged in a "personal relationship" with an American Republican consultant only for business purposes and had offered sex to at least one other person "in exchange for a position within a special interest organization."
In a new court filing, prosecutors also called Butina a flight risk, saying she has connections with wealthy business executives linked to the Putin administration and appeared to be planning to leave Washington and possibly the United States. They said that when she was arrested, her apartment was full of moving boxes and she had transferred money to Russia in recent days.
The new allegations laid out Wednesday explicitly link Butina to Russia's intelligence services for the first time, painting the portrait of a covert agent backed by powerful patrons who went to lengths to create a pretext for her presence in the U.S.
The details about her alleged activities injected even more drama into the case of the Russian gun rights activist, who in recent years cozied up to top U.S. conservatives, including the leadership of the National Rifle Association.
In a document that could have been ripped from the television show "The Americans," prosecutors decribed her manipulating a South Dakota political operative as part of her scheme and meeting for a private lunch in March with a Russian diplomat suspected of being a Russian intelligence officer - all while FBI agents watched.
Butina, who came to the U.S. on a student visa in August 2016 to study at American University, was arrested this week and charged with conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government and failing to register as an agent of a foreign government. Prosecutors say she worked to infiltrate American conservative groups to advance the Kremlin's interests.
In advance of a scheduled detention hearing Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors argued strongly against her release, noting "her history of deceptive conduct."
Butina's attorney has said she was not a Russian agent but a student interested in forming bonds with Americans. A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that her arrest was alarming and with an aim of undermining the outcomes of this week's Russian-U. S. summit in Helsinki.
"You get the sense that someone grabbed a watch and a calculator to determine when the decision on Maria Butina's arrest should be adopted to maximally undermine the outcomes of the summit that took place between the Russian and U.S. presidents. It was that deliberately timed," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing in Moscow on Wednesday.
Prosecutors revealed Wednesday that after executing a search warrant at her Washington home in April, they learned Butina "was in contact with officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives."
The memo written Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson states that Butina maintained contact information for employees of the Russian FSB, the successor to the Soviet Union's KGB, and that was "likely in contact with the FSB throughout her stay in the United States."
As part of Butina's outreach to the NRA and other GOP groups, she once quizzed Donald Trump while he was a presidential candidate about his views on Russia and chatted briefly with the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., at an NRA meeting in May 2016.
The Washington Post reported earlier this year that she was spotted at an inaugural ball when Trump was sworn into office last January, part of a group of Russians whose presence at Trump's celebration drew the attention of the FBI.
On Monday, prosecutors said Butina sent a senior Russian government official a photo of herself near the U.S. Capitol on Inauguration Day.
"You're a daredevil girl," the official responded, according to the court filing.
In addition to apparent ties to the Russian government, the court filing alleges that Butina had ties to "wealthy businessmen in the Russian oligarchy."
Prosecutors state that her Twitter messages, chat logs and emails referred to a Russian businessman "with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration," that this unnamed person often travels to the United States and has been referred to as her "funder" in Butina's correspondence.
Also, in 2014 Butina engaged in text messages with a different wealthy Russian businessman concerning budgets for her trip to America and meetings with her "funder," Kenerson wrote.
Those officials were not identified.
Prosecutors have said Butina's main Russian contact was a high level government official who matches the description of Alexander Torshin, a Russian central banker and former senator from Putin's party.
In direct messages exchanged through Twitter, prosecutors said she and Torshin agreed that she could only operate in secret. "Only incognito!" she wrote in one message in October 2016. In a note in March 2017, Torshin wrote, "You have upstaged Anna Chapman," a reference to a well-known Russian spy who had lived freely in the United State for years before her 2010 arrest.
She was assisted in her efforts to make contact with influential Americans by South Dakota political operative Paul Erickson, a political consultant from South Dakota who once helped run Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign and whom Butina met after hosting him and other American gun enthusiasts in Russia in 2013.
They formed a "personal relationship," prosecutors said, but the 29-year-old expressed disdain" about having to live with 56-year-old Erickson.
Still, prosecutors said Wednesday that Butina had plotted with Erickson how she should manage visas to remain in the United States. They also surveilled Butina and Erickson entering a Washington bank last week and sending a $3,500 wire transfer to Russia, and then on Saturday inquiring at a U-Haul facility about renting a truck and purchasing moving boxes.
And they alleged that Erickson would help Butina "complete her academic assignments, by editing papers and answering exam questions." They said her relationship with Erickson was "duplicitous" and her attendence at American University a mere "cover."
Erickson did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email in 2017, Butina told The Post that Erickson was "one of my friends and political mentors." She said he had helped her form a consulting company in South Dakota called Bridges LLC, which she had intended to use to pay for her studies. But she said she ultimately found "financial aid" and the company was inactive.
An American University spokesman, who has confirmed Butina received a master's degree this year, declined to comment but pointed to a university policy that allows the school to revoke the degrees if an internal investigation finds a former student engaged in academic misconduct.
This article was written by Tom Jackman and Karen DeYoung, both are reporters for The Washington Post.