Maria Butina, 30, a Russian gun rights activist, who is accused of developing a covert Russian influence campaign in the United States, has agreed to plead guilty to Conspiracy to defraud the United States and cooperate with federal, state, and local officials in any ongoing investigations.
As part of the deal, she admits that she and an unnamed “U.S. Person 1,” who is thought to be veteran GOP operative Paul Erickson, with whom she had a lengthy romantic relationship, “agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official (“Russian Official”) and at least one other person, for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of Russian Official without prior notification to the Attorney General.”
The “Russian Official” appears to be Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and a close confidant of Russian President Putin. Under his direction, the plea agreement said, she “sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.”
The agreement, signed Saturday by Butina, notes that the conspiracy charges comes with a maximum penalty of up to five years in federal prison, however Butina could receive a lesser sentence, depending on her level of cooperation, before likely being deported back to Moscow.
It is currently unclear what Butina’s cooperation might entail, however federal prosecutors in Washington D.C., under the direction of U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu, have notified Erickson that he is a target of an ongoing criminal investigation, according to multiple news reports. The target letter sent to Erickson is from Assistant U.S. Attorneys, working under Liu, sources familiar with the case told AF-MG.com, and is separate from an ongoing South Dakota-based federal fraud investigation into his business dealings.
(Robert Driscoll, a Washington D.C. attorney representing Butina, did not return a request for comment.
William Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, declined to comment along with Erickson’s attorney.
Butina was arrested by the FBI in July and accused of “ensnaring Erickson” in a “duplicitous relationship,” using him for “cover and connections” as she “developed an influence operation designed to “advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.” She pleaded not guilty to charges of Conspiracy to defraud the United States and failing to register as a foreign agent, under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
Now, according to the plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Butina has acknowledged that with the assistance of U.S. Person 1, she drafted a proposal titled “Description of the Diplomacy Project” in March, 2015, which was later sent to the Russian Official, in which she said that she had already “laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration” and requested $125,000 from a Russian billionaire to attend conferences and meetings to further develop those relationships. The Russian Official, confirmed that her proposal would be partially supported, according to the agreement.
The U.S. government alleges that U.S. Person 1 “worked with Butina to arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics,” including high-ranking members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast – ultimately giving her a surprising level of access to right-leaning politicians, including then-candidate Donald Trump.
Butina’s Russian gun rights organization “Right to Bear Arms” hosted a delegation of former NRA Presidents, board members, and major donors in Moscow in 2015, where she appeared to be successful in arranging a meeting between NRA insiders and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, raising the question of a possible discussion between conservative political operatives and a powerful member of Putin’s inner circle during a presidential campaign.
Following that infamous meeting, according to the agreement, Butina sent the Russian Official a message, which was translated as saying “We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
It appears that even though Erickson was helping Butina forge those connections, he may have been aware of the political implications.
“Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns,” Erickson wrote in an October 2016 email to an acquaintance that was later obtained by the FBI, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [unnamed political party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [unnamed gun-rights organization].”
During an FBI raid of Erickson’s South Dakota home, investigators discovered a handwritten note suggesting Erickson may have been aware of a possible job offer from Russian intelligence services: “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” Erickson scratched, an apparent reference to the Russian equivalent of the CIA.
Butina’s attorney, Driscoll, has described her as a promising graduate student whose career has been derailed by this case, but federal prosecutors say that was just a “cover while she continued to work on behalf the Russian Official.”
Butina allegedly maintained that cover with the assistance of Erickson. He supported her financially, telling McClatchy DC he established a South Dakota-based company Bridges LLC with Butina in order to help defray her educational expenses, and according to court filings, assisted with her coursework “by editing papers and answering exam questions.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors claim, Butina “appear[ed] to treat [her relationship with Erickson] as simply a necessary aspect of her activities” and privately expressed “disdain” for continuing to live with him.
Driscoll, however, had insisted that Butina and Erickson, despite the government’s claims to the contrary, were engaged in a mutual and genuine cross-cultural romance.
“I think in some ways it’s a classic love story,” Driscoll said. “I think [reporters] are filling in a lot of the gaps with a lot of spy novels.”
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