Federal prosecutors said yesterday they have misunderstood text messages sent by a Russian national that indicated that she traded romantic relationships for access to a major U.S. gun rights organization.
The case is likely to stand notwithstanding, but the error still threatens to undermine the picture of an international spy operation the U.S. government has worked hard to paint.
Twenty-nine-year-old Russian citizen Maria Butina was arrested by U.S. officials in July, accused of being a spy trying to influence U.S. politics. The FBI contends Butina tried to curry favor with a U.S.-based gun rights organization in order to infiltrate and ultimately influence a major U.S. political party.
Neither the gun rights organization nor the major U.S. political party are mentioned by name in the FBI’s charging documents but they are widely believed to be the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party respectively.
As part of her tactics, the U.S. government accused Butina of offering “sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.” The government admitted the error in a filing released on Friday but said there was still ample reason to question the relationship Butina had with boyfriend Paul Erickson. Erickson is a U.S.-based conservative political activist who is believed to be referred to in government filings as “U.S. Person 1.”
“Even granting that the government’s understanding of this particular text conversation was mistaken, other communications and materials in the government’s possession (and produced to the defense) call into doubt the defendant’s claim that her relationship with U.S. Person 1 is a sufficiently strong tie to ensure her appearance in court to face the charges against her if she is released,” the government wrote.
The U.S. government had originally based the accusation on a three-year-old text exchange sent while Butina was in Russia to a longtime friend who conducted public relations for a Russian-based gun rights group she founded.
The accusation of romantic relationships in exchange for access was one that was vehemently denied by Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll. “I want the government’s walk back to get as much coverage, as prominently, as their initial false allegation,” Driscoll said after the revelation.
Butina has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against her and the Russian government has characterized the U.S.’ treatment of her as bordering on torture.
“We grow more worried about the situation with Maria Butina, a student, who was arrested by U.S. authorities under clearly unfounded accusations. Her situation is getting worse. Attempts are obviously made to ‘break’ her under additional humiliations and psychological pressure,” the Russian government wrote in a Facebook post last month.
Moscow has objected to Butina’s being transferred from a Washington, D.C. prison to a prison in Virginia without notice, of her being strip searched and being subjected to solitary confinement, among other things.
“We have more and more questions to the U.S. justice system. Should allegations pressed against Maria before the actual trial condemn her to practices that are slightly below torture?” the statement continued.
Prosecutors have written in filings that Russian officials have made regular consular visits to Butina while she is in custody – six in all – and that the Russian foreign minister has raised the issue of Butina’s detainment with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo twice. These actions “confirmed her relationship with, and value to, her own government,” prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors have also in recent weeks proposed a gag order intended to prevent Butina’s attorney from speaking publicly in a way that could influence potential jurors.
“Having successfully created a false media narrative that this case is more about Maria Butina seducing NRA members and Republicans than its gossamer-thin evidence that Maria was acting on anyone’s behalf other than her own, the government now seeks to prevent her and her counsel from even attempting to correct the public record,” Driscoll said.
Photo by Maria Butina via Facebook