Maria Butina, an accused Russian spy who snuggled up to the National Rifle Association before the 2016 election, has started cooperating with federal prosecutors after agreeing to a plea deal in recent days, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The news that Butina had appeared to reach a deal with federal prosecutors first hit earlier on Monday when her attorneys and prosecutors filed a two-page request on Monday for a “change of plea” hearing before a federal judge. “The parties have resolved this matter,” the filing in DC federal court said on Monday morning. Butina’s case was presented by federal prosecutors in DC and not by Robert Mueller’s team in the special counsel’s office.
Her compliance will mostly focus on exposing to investigators the role of her boyfriend, Paul Erickson and her communications with her Russian handlers. A spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in DC refused to comment. Butina’s lawyer refused to comment for the story. A lawyer for Erickson also did not instantly respond to a request for comment.
Based on the agreement, disclosed to CNN, Butina “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.”
ABC News was the first to report Butina agreed to cooperate.
A plea hearing has been set for 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday where a judge will need to sign off on the deal. The developments on Monday followed after so many weeks of clues that Butina might bargain an end to her case and after bumps in the case where federal prosecutors, at the height of attention on Russia’s influence in American politics, accused the former graduate student of infiltrating Republican organizations in order to advance Russian interests.
All the while, Butina, 30, insisted on her innocence and maintained that she was simply a foreign student interested in improving relations between the US and Russia. Butina earlier pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy and a second count of acting as an agent of a foreign government when she was arrested in July.
The draft filing of the plea deal states that Butina depended on assistance from Erickson and took direction from her handler, former Russian banker Alexander Torshin , as she “sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics. Butina sought to use those unofficial lines of communication for the benefit of the Russia Federation.”
Neither Erickson or Torshin is recognised by name in the draft but their details make them identifiable based on past known information.
Butina kept Torshin well-versed of her activities and her “assessment of the political landscape in the United States in advance of the 2016 election,” according to the draft filing.
According to the document, at one point, Torshin asked her to present a note justifying his attendance at the 2016 NRA national meeting. Butina “did as he directed, encouraging his attendance partly because of the opportunity to meet political candidates,”.
Although the draft court filing sacrifices to list her efforts to maneuver in conservative political circles, it also cuts down other allegations prosecutors made in court.
After formerly spreading her studies at American University as little more than a cover, the draft statement of offense notes: “All available evidence indicates that Butina had interest in a graduate school education.”
There’s nothing of the sex-for-access accusations prosecutors once laid out in court filings , only to them walk back later.
According to a copy of the document obtained by CNN, Butina’s plea offer shows that she will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy According to a copy of the document obtained by CNN.
Prosecutors predicted a sentence between zero and six months. Butina has earlier been confined for five months, so the judge could choose to sentence her to time already served.
Her cooperation agreement expects her to submit any evidence of crimes she knows, present a full account of her financial assets, sit for interviews with law enforcement (and waive right to counsel during those interviews) and confess before grand juries or in trials in DC or elsewhere.
It also indicates that, due to her plea, she will mostly be deported.
Her case first turned public in the face a rage of US-Russia developments. She was detained two days after the Justice Department separately indicted Russian military intelligence for hacking the Democratic Party, and her case became public the same day President Donald Trump met with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, and refused to confirm US intelligence findings that Russia influenced the 2016 election.
Butina’s case at first seemed to allege she tried to do just that, with prosecutors saying she offered sex to gain political access and sought out Trump campaign officials. But prosecutors later agreed they made a mistake in interpreting the text messages they used as evidence to support their stand that she was trading sex for access, drawing a rebuke from the judge overseeing the case.
At a bail hearing in July, in which a judge determined she should be jailed to avoid her fleeing to Russia with the help of Russian diplomats, her attorney argued that her case shouldn’t be a proxy fight for US-Russian relations.
It is still unclear if Butina fits into a broader picture of investigations into Russian infiltration in US politics, however, or if she will agree to cooperate in other federal investigations as part of her plea deal.
Following her arrest, Butina indicated that she would be ready to cooperate with investigators on other probes, such as a fraud investigation in South Dakota into Erickson, who is an American conservative activist. Instantly after her arrest, she became unwilling to help.
Prosecutors in their criminal complaint accused Butina of toadying herself with politically powerful Americans and groups, along with the NRA, and exploiting those connections to try to advance Russian interests. They claimed she was in steady contact with her Russian backers, plus Torshin, a Kremlin-linked banker who has been sanctioned by the US Treasury and that she made contact with Russian intelligence.
At one court hearing, prosecutors presented a photo of her dining with a Russian diplomat just north of the embassy just before that man, a suspected intelligence officer, left the US amid a purge of Russian agents.
Prosecutors said Torshin likened her to Anna Chapman, another accused Russian spy who was deported from the US in a prisoner swap in 2010, and that she attempted to establish “back channel” lines of communications with American politicians and met Republican leaders as “a representative of informal diplomacy” before the 2016 election.
The contacts with Americans including politics lasted allthrough her tenure as a graduate student at American University, according to prosecutors. They had publicised her studies as little more than a cover for her spy work.
By changing her plea, Butina will possibly be forced to return to Russia upon release from jail. She is presently being held in solitary confinement in a northern Virginia jail. She and her lawyer have continously, and unsuccessfully, debated that she be released on house arrest or at removed from the solitary confinement.
Even under scrutiny from federal investigators, Erickson has maintained visiting Butina in jail. He has not been charged with a crime.