WASHINGTON (AP) — A 29-year-old gun-rights activist suspected of being a covert Russian agent was likely in contact with Kremlin operatives while living in the United States, prosecutors said Wednesday in court papers that also accused her of using sex and deception to forge influential connections.
The woman, Maria Butina, was observed by the FBI dining privately with a Russian diplomat suspected of being an intelligence operative in the weeks before the envoy’s departure from the U.S. last March, prosecutors say. She also had contact information for people who investigators believe were employees of Russia’s Federal Security Services, or FSB, the successor intelligence agency to the KGB.
The allegations, made in court filings aimed at persuading a judge to keep Butina in custody, add to the portrait of a Russian woman who the Justice Department says worked covertly to establish back-channel lines of communication to the Kremlin and infiltrate U.S. political organizations, including the National Rifle Association, and gather intelligence for a senior Russian official to whom she reported.
Prosecutors also alleged that she had a personal relationship with an American political operative and also offered sex to another person in exchange for a position with a special interest organization.
Court papers do not name the individuals or the special interest group.
Butina awaits trial on charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia. A judge on Wednesday ordered Butina held in jail as the case moves forward.
Citing her intelligence ties, the government is arguing that Butina poses an “extreme” risk of fleeing the U.S., where she has been living on a student visa. In seeking her detention, prosecutors said Butina’s “legal status in the United States is predicated on deception.”
Her lawyer has called the allegations overblown and has denied that Butina is a Russian agent.
Butina was arrested over the weekend amid signs that she planned to leave the area and possibly the country. Her lease on an apartment ends later this month, her belongings were packed at the time of her arrest and she had applied for a visa that would allow her to travel to and from the United States, prosecutors said.
Her personal ties, “save for those U.S. persons she attempted to exploit and influence,” are to Russia, according to the government court filing.
“The concern that Butina poses a risk of flight is only heightened due to her connection to suspected Russian intelligence operatives,” prosecutors wrote.
Presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House was looking into the case, but she also scolded reporters for tweets the previous day that mistook a staffer for Butina. She said the mistake “shows frankly the outrageousness and the … desire to find the negative in everything that this president does.”
“Just because somebody was simply redheaded they were accused of being some sort of spy for Russia,” she said.
Prosecutors said Butina was regarded as a covert agent by a Russian official with whom she was in touch, with text messages discovered by the FBI showing how the official likened her to Anna Chapman, a Russian woman who was arrested in 2010 and then deported as part of a prisoner swap.
In March 2017, following news coverage of Butina, the Russian official wrote, “Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones,” according to the court filing.
Butina and the official messaged each other directly on Twitter, prosecutors said. One such exchange occurred a month before the U.S. presidential election when Butina said she understood that “everything has to be quiet and careful.”
They also spoke on January 20, 2017 when Butina sent the official a photo of her near the U.S. Capitol on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. According to court papers, the Russian official responded, “You’re a daredevil girl! What can I say!” Butina responded, “Good teachers!”
Authorities have not named the Russian official, but details in the court papers match the description of Alexander Torshin, a former legislator who is now a senior official in the Central Bank of the Russian Federation.
Torshin, who became an NRA life member in 2012, was among a group of Russian oligarchs and officials targeted in April by Treasury Department sanctions for their associations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and their roles in “advancing Russia’s malign activities.”
Prosecutors say the official directed Butina to use her contacts with the NRA and other conservative causes to gather intelligence on American officials and political organizations. She is also accused of trying to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin.
The NRA, which has previously been connected to Butina, has not commented on the charges.
Her attorney, Robert Driscoll, said she was just a student, attending American University in the nation’s capital, who “at most” was seeking to promote a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
But in court papers, prosecutors said Butina’s university enrollment was a cover for her covert duties and that she suggested, falsely, on her visa application that she was no longer employed by the Russian official at the time she applied for a student visa.
Prosecutors also alleged that she used a personal relationship with an unnamed American political operative, with whom she was living, “as simply a necessary aspect” of her covert activities on behalf of Russia.
Authorities say the relationship with the operative, identified as “U.S. Person 1” in court papers, shouldn’t be seen as a “strong tie” to the U.S., noting she “offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”