Prosecutors say a woman charged with being an illicit Russian agent used sex, and money, to build contacts.
WASHINGTON — For four years, a Russian accused of being a covert agent pursued a brazen effort to infiltrate conservative circles and influence powerful Republicans while she secretly was in contact with Russian intelligence operatives, a senior Russian official and a billionaire oligarch close to the Kremlin whom she called her “funder,” federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
The woman, Maria Butina, carried out her campaign through a series of deceptions that began in 2014, if not earlier, prosecutors said. She lied to obtain a student visa to pursue graduate work at American University in 2016. Apparently hoping for a work visa that would grant her a longer stay, she offered one American sex in exchange for a job. She moved in with a Republican political operative nearly twice her age, describing him as her boyfriend. But she privately expressed “disdain” for him and had him do her homework, prosecutors said.
In a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, prosecutors said Butina, 29, who is charged with conspiracy and illegally acting as an agent of the Russian government, was the point person in a long-term campaign intended to steer high-level politicians toward Moscow’s objectives. Though prosecutors did not name any party or politician, Butina’s efforts seemed clearly aimed at Republican leaders, especially those with White House aspirations in 2016, including Donald Trump. She “should be considered on a par with other covert Russian agents,” prosecutors said in a memo.
She once quizzed 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.
While Russian military intelligence officers were hacking into the computers and email accounts of the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, Butina was building connections on the Republican side under the direction of an official believed to be Alexander Torshin, deputy head of the Russian central bank, who has established ties to Russian security services, according to the court filings.
Secretly, she and others laid the groundwork for a $125,000 operation to connect with Republican leaders through a network of contacts with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative religious groups, including the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast, prosecutors said. “The defendant’s covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination and preparation,” they said.
Judge Deborah Robinson of U.S. District Court denied bail for Butina, accepting prosecutors’ argument that she was at high risk to flee the country. Prosecutors sought criminal charges after agents reported over the weekend that she was moving money out of the country, had her boxes packed, looked into renting a moving truck and had terminated her apartment lease. Her contact list included an email account associated with the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency that is the main successor to the Soviet KGB.
She could easily slip out of the reach of the Justice Department merely by getting into an embassy car, said Erik Kenerson, an assistant U.S. attorney.
Butina’s defense lawyer, Robert Driscoll, tried to distance his client from Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. He stressed that Butina was not indicted by the special counsel investigating Russia’s meddling, Robert Mueller.
Driscoll disclosed that investigators for the Federal Election Commission had questioned Butina about “whether certain donations had been made to a political campaign.”
Prosecutors revealed that the Republican political operative from South Dakota who created a company with her in 2016 was the subject of a fraud investigation. Unidentified in the indictment, he is believed to be Paul Erickson, 56, whom Butina called her boyfriend.
FBI agents have been surveilling Butina, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in international relations, for the past year.
In a search of her apartment near American University in Washington, FBI agents uncovered a trail of messages between Butina and Torshin. After she was featured in several news articles, Torshin likened her to Anna Chapman, a Russian intelligence agent who was arrested in the United States in 2010, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as a Russian agent and was deported to Russia as part of a swap for American prisoners.
“Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Torshin wrote.
In the weeks before the election, the two agreed she should keep a low profile, with Butina referring to herself as being “underground.” But after Butina sent Torshin a photograph of herself near the U.S. Capitol on the day Trump was inaugurated, he exclaimed: “You’re a daredevil girl! What can I say!” She responded: “Good teachers!”
Prosecutors also linked Butina to an unnamed wealthy Russian oligarch who they said has deep ties to the Kremlin’s presidential administration and often travels to the United States. Butina repeatedly referred to the businessman as her “funder,” they said. Before her first trip to the United States in late 2014, she met with him and communicated with another rich Russian businessman by text about her travel budget, court papers said.
Later, worried that her frequent trips on short-term visas would attract too much attention, Butina schemed about how she could obtain a work visa, prosecutors said, offering sex in exchange for a job at an unidentified “special-interest organization.” The organization was not identified.
Although her lawyer said Butina maintained a 4.0 average at American University, prosecutors said she relied on Erickson to help her complete exams and assignments. Although he is her closest tie to the United States, “she appears to treat that relationship as simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” the government’s memo said.