A Russian woman pleaded guilty in a US court to a single conspiracy charge in a deal with prosecutors and admitted to working with a top Russian official to infiltrate a powerful gun rights group and make inroads with American conservative activists and the Republican Party as an agent for Moscow, Reuters reports.
Maria Butina, a former graduate student at American University in Washington who publicly advocated for gun rights, entered the plea to a charge of conspiracy to act as a foreign agent at a hearing in Washington on Thursday.
She became the first Russian to be convicted of working to influence US policy during the 2016 presidential race and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Butina admitted to conspiring with a Russian official and two Americans from 2015 until her July arrest to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, a group closely aligned with US conservatives and Republican politicians including President Donald Trump, and create unofficial lines of communication to try to make Washington’s policy toward Moscow more friendly.
Alexander Torshin, who was a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, has been identified by Butina’s lawyers as the Russian official.
Torshin was hit with US Treasury Department sanctions in April. Paul Erickson, a conservative US political activist with deep Republican ties who was romantically linked to Butina, was one of the two Americans to whom prosecutors referred.
Butina, a 30-year-old native of Siberia, agreed to cooperate “fully, truthfully, completely and forthrightly” with any and all US law enforcement agencies and could provide interviews, sworn statements and lie-detector tests and participate in undercover law enforcement stings.
She was jailed after being charged in July and initially pleaded not guilty. Other Russian individuals and entities have been charged in a separate investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller regarding Moscow’s role in the 2016 election.
Clad in a green jumpsuit with her red hair pulled back in a long braid, Butina replied “absolutely” when asked by US District Judge Tanya Chutkan if her mind was clear as she prepared to plead guilty. Prosecutors dropped one other charge as part of the plea deal.
The actions Butina acknowledged taking occurred during the same time period that US intelligence agencies have concluded Russia engaged in a campaign of propaganda and hacking to sow discord in the United States during the 2016 race and boost Republican candidate Trump’s chances against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
In a statement of offense read aloud in court, a prosecutor said Butina drafted a March 2015 “Diplomacy Project” calling for establishing unofficial back channels of communication with high-ranking American politicians to help advance Russia’s interests.
Although there are no US sentencing guidelines for her specific crime, her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, estimated that under guidelines for similar crimes Butina could face up to six months in prison. Butina faces possible deportation to Russia after finishing her sentence.
Because of Butina’s ongoing cooperation, the judge did not set a sentencing date but scheduled a status hearing for Feb. 12.
– Contact us at [email protected]