A Russian woman accused of working as a covert foreign agent was in regular contact with operatives from Moscow and offered sex in exchange for a job, prosecutors said Wednesday in newly filed court papers.
Those claims are part of the Justice Department’s argument that Maria Butina should be held without bond because she is an “extreme” flight risk. In fact, Ms. Butina had terminated her lease and packed boxes at the time of her arrest Sunday, according to court documents.
“Because Butina has been exposed as an illegal agent of Russia, there is the grave risk that she will appeal to those within that government with whom she conspired to aid her escape from the United States,” Justice Department attorneys wrote.
The court papers pushing to detain Ms. Butina, 29, were filed just ahead of her first appearance before a federal judge Wednesday in the District of Columbia. Ms. Butina was indicted Tuesday by a grand jury on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia.
It is not clear whether Ms. Butina has any direct connection to the 12 Russians indicted Friday on charges linked to election meddling. Special counsel Robert Mueller charged the 12 as part of his Russian collusion investigation, and the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia filed the charges against Ms. Butina.
In a 13-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Deborah Robinson ordered Ms. Butina to be detained for three days, until her next court appearance.
Prosecutors were adamant that Ms. Butina would flee. A chief concern was the revelation that Ms. Butina had been in contact with the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, while operating in the United States, according to court documents.
FBI agents spotted Ms. Butina in March dining with a Russian diplomat suspected of being among that country’s intelligence officials, court documents revealed. The official left the United States weeks after meeting with Ms. Butina.
Ms. Butina was in regular contact with Alexander Torshin, a Russian official believed to have been directing her activities in the United States, according to the Justice Department. FBI agents discovered a series of text messages in which Mr. Torshin compared her to Anna Chapman, a Russian spy who was arrested in 2010. Chapman was later sent to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange.
Prosecutors said her clandestine work was “calculated, patient and directed” by the Russian official.
“The defendant’s covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination, and preparation,” the Justice Department said in court filings.
Mr. Torshin was sanctioned by the Treasury Department this year and is barred from traveling to the U.S. But he wasn’t the only Russian official who was linked to Ms. Butina.
Prosecutors said an unidentified Russian billionaire with ties to the Kremlin was Ms. Butina’s “funder.” The businessman was listed in Forbes magazine as having a net worth of $1.2 billion, court filings said.
Ms. Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, did not return a request for comment. But CNN reported Monday that Mr. Driscoll denied that his client is a Russian spy.
“There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law [of] the United States — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations,” Mr. Driscoll said, according to the network.
Mr. Driscoll said Ms. Butina was arrested without prior notice to counsel and that the Justice Department did not accept multiple offers to assist the investigation, CNN reported.
Ms. Butina had been on the FBI’s radar for months and testified in March before a closed session of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Driscoll has said.
‘Back channel of communications’
Personal relationships, including sex, were part of her operation, the Justice Department said.
A 56-year-old American romantically linked to Ms. Butina is described in court papers as U.S. Person 1 but is believed to be Paul Erickson, a conservative fundraiser and a member of the National Rifle Association.
Although the two lived together and had a romantic relationship, prosecutors said, she offered another individual sex in exchange for a position with a special interest organization. Ms. Butina viewed her relationship with Person 1 as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities” and complained about living with him, they said.
Mr. Erickson was said to be Ms. Butina’s link to a group identified in court documents only as a “gun rights organization.” During a 2016 meeting with members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Mr. Erickson made a pitch using the NRA’s international reach.
Mr. Torshin and Ms. Butina are lifetime NRA members, and she presented herself on social media as a gun lover. But she also used the NRA to meet political figures and attend political events and dinners, including the National Prayer Breakfast. Ms. Butina told an American contact that the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast would include Russians hand-picked by Mr. Torshin.
“They are coming to establish a back channel of communications,” she told the contact, according to court papers.
In 2011, she founded a gun rights organization in Russia, the Right to Bear Arms, and she has been involved in coordinating between American gun rights activists and their Russian counterparts, according to multiple media reports.
Ms. Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group’s annual meeting in 2015, according to those reports. Among those who attended were former NRA President David Keene, who at the time was the opinion editor of The Washington Times; Mr. Erickson; and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., later a strong Trump supporter.
FBI surveillance this month observed Ms. Butina and U.S. Person 1 entering a D.C. bank and sending a wire transfer of $3,500 to a Russian account. Prosecutors said they don’t know the purpose of the wire transfer, but the transaction underscores Ms. Butina’s financial ties to Russia, increasing the chance she could flee before trial.
From Siberia to Washington
Prosecutors also revealed Wednesday that Ms. Butina came to the United States on a false student visa. She attended classes and completed coursework at American University as part of her covert identity. Court documents say U.S. Person 1 not only helped her pick a student visa, but also edited papers and answered exam questions for her classes.
Ms. Butina graduated in May with a degree in international relations. Her attorney said she had a 4.0 grade point average.
Ms. Butina stated on her visa application, under penalty of perjury, that she was no longer employed by Mr. Torshin, a claim the government disputes. In fact, prosecutors said she was Mr. Torshin’s assistant until her arrest.
“Her false attestation on the visa application was premeditated and consistent with her actions being part of a Russian operation,” prosecutors said.
Ms. Butina grew up in Barnual, Siberia, where she graduated from high school with honors, and later studied at Altai State University and the School of Real Politics. She started a school debate club and worked for a local newspaper during her college years.
She later opened a furniture store that grew into a mini-empire, according to Altapress, a Russian news outlet. At the same time, she was elected to the Public Chamber, an advisory committee that serves as a go-between for local officials and the public.
Ms. Butina ran for the nationwide Public Chamber but lost. But that gave her gave an opportunity to move to Moscow, where she started the Russian gun rights group.
Andrei Kolyadin, a Moscow political analyst who used Ms. Butina as an interpreter when he attended the National Prayer Breakfast, described her to Russia’s Interfax news agency as “an extremely energetic person with plenty of ideas.” Mr. Kolyadin also told the paper that Ms. Butina wasn’t working with Russian intelligence.
Her father, Valery Butina, also told Russian media that his daughter did nothing wrong.
“It’s psychosis. A witch hunt,” he was quoted as saying Wednesday by Altapress.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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