WASHINGTON – A federal magistrate Wednesday ordered that a Russian national, accused earlier this week of infiltrating American political organizations including the National Rifle Association, be held without bond pending trial.
Magistrate Deborah Robinson sided with federal prosecutors who argued that Mariia Butina, 29, represented an “extreme” risk of flight from the country.
Robinson said there was “no condition or combination of conditions that could assure” Butina’s return to court where she faces two felony charges, one of which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.
Butina, dressed in a short-sleeved orange jumpsuit, did not visibly react to the judge's decision before leaving the second-floor courtroom with two federal marshals.
In court papers filed in advance of Butina's detention hearing here, prosecutors asserted that Butina engaged in a years-long campaign as a covert agent for the Kremlin in an attempt to "advance the interests of her home country."
"The defendant's covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination and preparation," prosecutors argued. "The plan for Butina also required, and she demonstrated, a willingness to use deceit in a visa application to move to the United States and bring the plan to fruition."
During the hearing, Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of his client.
He also rejected the government’s assertion that Butina was a flight risk.
Driscoll said Butina had made no effort to return to Russia during the past year, despite the close scrutiny of the FBI. Among the evidence presented Wednesday was an FBI surveillance photo of Butina dining with a suspected Russian intelligence officer.
“Ms. Butina is not a proxy for all of the serious issues we have with Russia,” Driscoll told the magistrate.
Citing FBI surveillance conducted during the past week, prosecutors said Butina had access to thousands of dollars and "an intention to move money out of the U.S."
At the time of her weekend arrest, federal agents said Butina's apartment was packed with boxes "consistent with a move."
"All of Butina's known personal ties, save for those U.S. persons she attempted to exploit and influence, reside in the Russian Federation," the court documents state.
The court documents, however, do refer to a romantic relationship with a 56-year-old U.S. person who prosecutors asserted was used by Butina to access "an extensive network" of other influential Americans.
The relationship did not appear to represent "a strong tie to the United States," because prosecutors alleged that Butina allegedly offered a separate U.S. person sex in exchange for a job with an undisclosed "special interest organization.
While neither of the U.S. persons were identified in court documents, the 56-year-old boyfriend appeared to match the description of South Dakota Republican political operative Paul Erickson, who has been publicly linked with Butina.
The two are listed in South Dakota state records as agents for a business known as Bridges LLC.
Butina's attorney also indicated Wednesday that the packing boxes observed by the FBI in Butina's apartment were in preparation for a move to South Dakota – not back to Russia – where Driscoll said she intended to live with her boyfriend.
Butina has remained in custody since her Sunday arrest.
During her time in the U.S., prosecutors argued that in addition to her dinner with the suspected Russian intelligence agents, Butina was in contact with other Russian operatives, perhaps throughout her stay in the United States.
Those contacts, Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson argued Wednesday, could assist in an effort to move Butina out of the country and out of reach of U.S. law enforcement.
"The Russian Federation has the ability to remove or exfiltrate its citizens from foreign countries," prosecutors argued. "And due to international law and treaty restrictions, law enforcement would be prevented from stopping Butina from entering the Russian embassy... Simply put, neither the court nor law enforcement could stop her or has any recourse or remedy, in the event Butina decided to seek safe harbor in a diplomatic facility."
The case against Butina is not related to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing inquiry into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.
But Monday's charging announcement came on the same day that a summit in Helsinki between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin put a spotlight on accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. After meeting with Putin, Trump accepted Putin's denials that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election. Although Trump sought to clarify his remarks Tuesday, the president's conduct continues to draw outrage from both Republican and Democrat lawmakers.
In the Butina case, the FBI investigation revealed that the graduate student was working in the United States at the direction of an unnamed Russian government official, adding that both operatives sought to establish "back channel lines of communications."
"These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation," investigators said.
Before Monday's action by federal authorities, Butina's activities in the United States – along with those of Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician and a top official of Russia's central bank – have been the subject of several media reports about their attempts to cultivate political influence in the U.S.
Torshin was not named in the court documents made public Monday, but the "Russian official" described as Butina's co-conspirator matches Torshin's public profile as a former member of the Russian legislature who later became a top official at the Russian bank.
Prosecutors referred to numerous messages exchanged between the two in which the Russian official once compared Butina to the former Russian sleeper agent Anna Chapman, who in 2010 was part of an extraordinary spy swap between Russia and the U.S.
Chapman was among 10 Russian agents who had embedded themselves in the U.S., before their discovery by U.S. authorities.
"Are your admirers asking for your autograph," the Russian official wrote in 2017 after Butina's exploits in the U.S. were highlighted in news accounts.
"You have upstaged Anna Chapman."
A March report issued by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee referred to the public reporting about Butina and Torshin, claiming that Butina "sought to facilitate meetings with Trump campaign officials and between President Putin and candidate Trump during the election."
"Ms. Butina, who appears to have been active with the NRA in recent years within the U.S., reportedly has founded a Russian counterpart gun advocacy organization," the congressional report stated. "She may be able to clarify for the committee the origin and purpose of alleged Russian-directed efforts to approach U.S. organizations and persons connected to the Trump campaign throughout and prior to 2016. (The Democrat) minority believes that it is important to request as a matter of record Ms. Butina’s cooperation even if she is not a U.S. citizen ..."
Butina's attorney, Driscoll, has denied the government's claim of her work as an agent of the Russian government. Since her home was searched by the FBI in April, Driscoll said Butina has "repeatedly" offered to cooperate with federal investigators.
Separately, Driscoll said Butina has testified privately before the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"The substance of the charge ... is overblown," Driscoll said. "While styled as some sort of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act, in actuality it describes a conspiracy to have a 'friendship dinner' at (restaurant) Bistro Bis with a group of Americans and Russians to discuss foreign relations between the two countries – hardly a shocking development for (a) Russian international relations student living in Washington."