Their love story may have bridged the divide between the plains of South Dakota and the wilds of Siberia, but the five-year romance between GOP consultant Paul Erickson and alleged Russian agent Maria Butina may be headed for a crack-up – leaving Erickson in legal jeopardy.
In a federal court filing, prosecutors allege that Butina has offered to flip on Erickson — who is also identified as “Person 1” in case documents. “Although the defense contends that the defendant is in a committed relationship with Person 1,” the feds write, “she recently offered to provide information to the government about his illegal activities.”
Erickson did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on allegations of wrongdoing. But elsewhere in the filing, prosecutors underscore that “there is an ongoing fraud investigation examining the activities of U.S. Person 1.” The federal document also states plainly: “U.S. Person 1 has aided the defendant’s charged criminal activity for years.” It elaborates that Erickson played an “integral role in the defendant’s efforts to establish an informal line of communication between the Kremlin and the incoming Presidential Administration, knowing that she was acting at the direction of the Russian Official.”
The official is identified in other court documents as the Russian Central Banker Alexander Torshin. For a deep dive on the illicit nexus between Russia, the NRA and the Trump campaign, read Rolling Stone’s original expose here.
The court filing is the federal response to Butina’s plea to be set free from jail on supervised release. A judge ruled in a hearing Monday afternoon that Butina should continue to be held without bail. The judge also placed a gag on the lawyers in the case — a blow to Butina, whose defense attorney’s ongoing media campaign had, according to prosecutors, created a “materially prejudicial effect on this case.”
As Rolling Stone reported in August, Butina’s lawyers blasted the federal government for maligning Butina as a “Kremlin-trained seductress, or spy-novel honeypot character, trading sex for access and power.” They pointed to key text exchanges between Butina and a Russian friend in which Butina — in a joke the feds took seriously — offered “sex” for the friend’s help registering a shared automobile at the Russian DMV.
In a remarkable turn, the documents show the feds abandoning the explosive accusation that Butina offered sex for access — admitting that “the government’s understanding of this particular text conversation was mistaken.” In court Monday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan upbraided prosecutors for having “damaged” Butina’s reputation. “It took me approximately five minutes to read those emails and tell that they were jokes,” she said. The judge nonetheless agreed with prosecutors that Butina should stay locked up.
In the court filing, prosecutors argue that Butina has “no meaningful ties to the United States and has every reason to flee.” The defense had pointed to Butina’s long-term relationship with Erickson as proof that she’s anchored in America. But prosecutors, pointing to Butina’s offer to incriminate Erikson, insist that their relationship is “insufficiently strong… to prevent her from fleeing the jurisdiction if released.” Citing Erickson’s complicity in Butina and Torshin’s scheme to infiltrate high levels of the NRA and GOP, the feds further insist he should not be trusted: “U.S. Person 1 is not a tie to the United States on which the Court should rely to ensure the defendant’s return to court or compliance with conditions of release.”
The court filing introduces new evidence that Butina infiltrated the NRA in order to gain access to high-ranking GOP figures. It reproduces a Twitter direct message, sent to Torshin, in which Butina describes her plan to use the NRA’s 2016 annual convention as a forum to influence a presidential candidate’s views on Russia. The document redacts the candidate’s name, but it appears to be Donald Trump.
Describing the NRA convention as providing a “unique opportunity” for forging “contacts with the candidate and his entourage,” Butina wrote of her intention to “help form [Political Candidate 2]’s correct view of Russian-American relations.” It has been widely reported that Torshin and Butina used events surrounding the NRA convention to meet with Donald Trump, Jr. — but did not secure a meeting with his father. A footnote in the new court document states: “All available evidence indicates that no such meeting occurred with Political Candidate 2.”
The document also reveals that Erickson coached Butina on how to frame her success infiltrating the GOP in a report to Torshin. In an email crafted shortly before Trump secured the Republican nomination in the summer of 2016, the feds write: “U.S. Person 1 suggested the defendant should close her report to the Russian Official by noting that she had worked to make ‘deep, inside connections to . . . [Political Party 1] . . . in the past year. . . . As of today, it’s more likely than not that [Political Candidate 2] wins the presidency and that my connections can be utilized for the benefits [sic] of both countries.’”
The federal court filing also argues that the Russian government’s actions toward Butina underscore the need to keep her locked up. Butina, the feds reveal, has received at least “six consular visits” from the Russian Government, which has also sent four communiques to the State Department on her behalf — more than for any other Russian in U.S. captivity over the past year. The document also indicates that “Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken to the U.S. Secretary of State twice to complain about this prosecution,” and observes that “the official Kremlin Twitter account changed its avatar to the defendant’s face and started a #FreeMariaButina hashtag.”
Noting that Butina faces “up to fifteen years of incarceration” upon conviction, the filing argues that Butina has “every motivation to flee to her home country, where she would be protected from extradition.” Prosecutors insist that Butina would merely need to reach a Russian diplomatic outpost to give justice the slip: “If the defendant is released, and she goes to the Russian embassy or consulate,” they write, “she will be beyond the reach of this Court, and it will have no redress.”