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How a Suspected Russian Agent Allegedly Used Guns, Sex and Billionaires to Peddle Influence

W.J. Hennigan
Mariia Butina, a Russian gun rights activist with links to the NRA, was arrested by the FBI on charges she was acting as a Russian agent.

A woman charged with carrying out a years-long conspiracy to work covertly in the United Stated as a Russian agent was ordered to remain jailed by a federal magistrate judge ahead of her trial after prosecutors insisted she was a flight risk in a salacious 29-page court filing.

It was the latest twist in the case of Mariia Buttina, a 29-year-old recent graduate of American University, who prosecutors say lived a double life by using sex and a love of guns to infiltrate American political organizations, like the National Rifle Association, in order to advance Moscow’s agenda.

The court filing, which presented new details on the case that was first made public on Monday, alleged Butina secretly communicated with Russian intelligence operatives and Kremlin-linked billionaires while simultaneously cultivating links with right-wing activists and Republican Party members.

“The defendant’s covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination, and preparation,” prosecutors wrote.

Butina appeared Wednesday in federal court in Washington after being indicted by a U.S. grand jury on criminal charges of conspiracy to take actions on behalf of the Russian government and acting as a foreign agent.

American investigators executed a search warrant at Butina’s Washington apartment in April seizing her electronic devices, including her laptop and iPhone, which contained contact information that includes an email account with an “FSB-associated domain” and “individuals identified as employees of the Russian FSB.” The FSB is the main successor agency to the former Soviet Union’s KGB.

“Based on this and other evidence, the FBI believes that the defendant was likely in contact with the FSB throughout her stay in the United States,” the filing said.

Prosecutors describe how FBI agents observed Butina “sharing a private meal” in March 2018 with a person who the federal government believes is a Russian intelligence officer in the United States under diplomatic cover. They also claim she’s “well-connected to wealthy businessmen in the Russian oligarchy,” by detailing a correspondence with a “funder” who is a “known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.” (Prosecutors say the man is listed as having a net worth of $1.2 billion in 2018, according to Forbes magazine. The publication’s billionaires list for this year includes 11 Russian men whose estimated net worth equals that amount.)

The documents against Butina, who also spells her first name Maria, were filed by the Justice Department, and not by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

Butina, who lived in the U.S. under a student visa, was arrested in Washington and accused of being an unregistered foreign agent of Russia. In the days leading up to her arrest, prosecutors said that FBI surveillance observed her taking steps to possibly leave the country. According to the documents she had terminated her apartment lease, packed her boxes, visited a U-Haul truck rental facility and transferred $3,500 to an account in Russia.

The disclosure offers up a possible rationale of the timing of Butina’s arrest. Her case was made public Monday mere hours after President Donald Trump stood beside his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, after a joint summit in Helsinki. The charges also came after the Justice Department unveiled an indictment last week against 12 Russian military-intelligence officers for conspiring to hack the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and state boards of election in 2016.

Robert Driscoll, a Washington lawyer representing Butina, told TIME in an email on Monday that his client was innocent and had been cooperating with “various government agencies for months.” He added that Butina voluntarily appeared “months ago” before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and “testified for 8 hours and produced thousands of documents.” She offered to do the same for the special counsel but Mueller’s team declined, Driscoll said.

In court documents, Butin’s alleged Russian handlers remain unidentified. However, one appears to be Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator and deputy central banker who has been part of a years-long campaign to build connections between Russia’s leaders and American conservatives. The crusade, which predates the rise of President Donald Trump, has achieved significant success, sparking new alliances with leading U.S. evangelicals, lawmakers and powerful interest groups like the NRA.

The FBI uncovered messages shared in March 2017 between Butina and the official, who is presumably Torshin, after media articles were published about her exploits as a gun rights activist. (TIME published an article on Butina and Torshin around this time.)

“Good morning! How are you faring there in the rays of the new fame?” the 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. There are a hell of a lot of rumors circulating here about me too! Very funny!”

Chapman, another red-haired Russian woman who was arrested for being unregistered foreign agent, was deported to Russia in 2010 as part of a prisoner swap after pleading guilty to conspiracy.

Like Chapman, prosecutors say Butina used sex appeal to further her aims. She allegedly lived with an unidentified “U.S. Person 1” who was twice her age and politically connected. The relationship was labeled “duplicitous” by prosecutors, because Butina privately complained about the relationship and having to live with him. (The man is believed to be Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican activist and NRA member.) Prosecutors wrote Butina also offered sex to an American “on at least one occasion” in “exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” which isn’t named.

Butina became well-known around Washington because of her odd self-promotion as a Russian gun rights activist. She stuck out — not only because there is no substantive gun rights movement in Russia — because of the deep connections she made in Washington. In 2015, a collection of NRA officials flew over to Russia to attend Butina’s annual gun conference, the Right to Bear Arms, details of which were included in a report from Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence made public on March 26.

She also had broader outreach to Republicans. In April 2015, Butina and Torshin traveled to Tennessee to attend a fundraiser for a political group backing the presidential campaign of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, then viewed as a leading contender for the GOP nomination. In July, she attended Walker’s campaign kickoff in Wisconsin. The same week, Butina flew to Las Vegas for one of Trump’s first campaign events. She stood up and asked Trump whether he would end the “damaging” U.S. government sanctions on Russia.

“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we’ll get along with Putin,” he responded. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”