Prosecutors acknowledged that they had been “mistaken” in interpreting what were apparently joking text messages between Maria Butina and a friend who had helped her renew her car insurance.
WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors have admitted they wrongly accused Maria Butina, a Russian citizen now in custody on charges of illegally acting as a foreign agent, of offering to trade sex for a job as part of a covert effort by Russian government officials to infiltrate Republican circles in the United States.
In a court filing late Friday, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., acknowledged that they had been “mistaken” in interpreting what were apparently joking text messages between Butina and a friend who had helped her renew her car insurance.
Butina was charged this summer with conspiracy and illegally acting as an agent of the Russian government in what prosecutors have claimed was a secret campaign to try to influence high-level Republican politicians, including Donald Trump, both as a candidate and after his election. Denied bail, she is in custody in the detention center in Alexandria, Virginia.
Defense lawyers for Butina are arguing that the prosecutors’ error is emblematic of a flawed federal case that has wrongly landed their client in pretrial custody. A federal judge is scheduled on Monday to consider Butina’s request that she be released from jail and whether to impose a gag order.
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“I’m glad they walked it back, but in a lot of ways, the damage is already done,” Robert Driscoll, one of Butina’s lawyers, said in an interview. In court filings, he has argued that his client engaged in innocent political activity but has now been falsely portrayed as a villain in a sensationalized spy drama. “A simple Google search using the phrase ‘Maria Butina and sex’ yields over 300,000 hits,” he said.
In their latest filing, prosecutors argued that even if they had wrongly interpreted Butina’s text messages to a friend, she should not be released from custody, because she was likely to flee the country. Since her arrest, they said, it has become even clearer that she was not simply a foreign graduate student with an interest in U.S. politics, but a Russian operative.
They said that Russian government emissaries had visited her at least six times in jail, and that Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, had complained twice about her prosecution to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “The actions of the Russian Federation and its officials toward the defendant have confirmed her relationship with, and value to, her own government,” they said.
Prosecutors said she has deep ties to Russia and few connections to the United States. They also assert other materials and communications investigators uncovered throw doubt on Butina’s claim that she should be freed on bond because she has U.S. ties in her longtime relationship with Paul Erickson, a South Dakota-based Republican consultant she met in Moscow in 2013 and with whom she has been romantically linked.
Butina pleaded not guilty after being indicted July 17 on charges of conspiracy to act and failing to register as an agent of a foreign government. Her defense said she was merely networking to develop relationships with Americans.
Driscoll argued in a filing last month that the allegation was a “sexist smear” that created the false impression Butina used sex as a spy tool. His filing said the allegation had been featured prominently in news coverage around the world including on television in Siberia, where Butina’s parents live.
Prosecutors had argued that Butina had once offered sex in exchange “for a position with a special-interest organization.”
Driscoll said the allegation was based on an erroneous interpretation of a playful text exchange between Butina and a married, longtime friend who does public-relations work for a Russian gun-rights group Butina founded.
In the 2015 exchange, the friend texted Butina after doing her a favor by taking her car to have its insurance renewed.
“I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance[.] They put me through the wringer,” he wrote to her in Russian.
“Sex,” she responded, adding: “Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name.”
Later in the texting, the man replied to Butina: “Think of something!! … Sex with you does not interest me.”
Prosecutors said their mistake should not undermine the gravity of the government’s overall case.
The case is not part of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but experts said the Butina case demonstrates the scale and scope of Russian efforts to influence U.S. politics.
Butina spent two years at American University in the global-security program at the School of International Service and received a master’s degree in May.