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Maria Butina’s Case Winds Down as Intrigue Around Her Lover Heats Up

The NRA component of the larger Russia story is not going anywhere

Maria Butina, 2013

Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalising the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia, 2013.

Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

UPDATE on December 10th, 2018: A deal appears imminent. On Monday, prosecutors joined Butina in a court filing announcing she was ready to change her plea. Butina previously pleaded not-guilty to acting and conspiring as a foreign agent. The filing reads: “The parties have resolved this matter, and the defendant Butina remains in custody.” The plea hearing could come as soon as Tuesday morning.

The case of alleged Russian agent Maria Butina, who infiltrated the NRA to gain access to GOP leaders and the Trump campaign, may be nearing its conclusion. Legal maneuvers in the case indicate a settlement is being negotiated between the government and Butina’s team, which was bolstered by the appointment this week of a public defender working as her “advisory counsel.” The current charges levied against Butina carry a maximum sentence of 15 years.

The negotiation — revealed in a late-November joint filing asking for a pause in the case, allowing the parties to finalize “a pretrial resolution of this matter” — comes as Butina remains in solitary confinement in an Alexandria, Virginia, jail. (She was placed in “administrative segregation” shortly before Thanksgiving, allegedly after passing her lawyers’ phone number to another inmate.)

In late November, Butina attorney Robert Driscoll filed a motion seeking to have Butina returned to the general jail population, arguing that the “prolonged deprivation of human contact and interaction is starting to have a profound psychological impact on Ms. Butina.” Driscoll described Butina as being locked up for 22 hours per day “in a steel-door cage the size of a parking space” and warned that “unless the court intervenes, she will… ultimately require the attention of mental health professionals.” Judge Tanya Chutkan rejected the motion, insisting she could not overturn internal jail-staff decisions based on “hearsay conversations and speculation” by Butina’s counsel.

Maria Butina, Alexandria, Va., Aug 17, 2018.

Maria Butina, Alexandria, Va., Aug 17, 2018. Photo: Alexandria Detention Center/Shutterstock

The news that Butina is negotiating with the feds follows a September filing by prosecutors that indicated Butina was prepared to flip on her boyfriend — the fifty-something NRA- and GOP-operative Paul Erickson. According to the feds, Butina had “offered to provide information to the government about his illegal activities.” 

Now, just as the legal case against Butina appears to be winding down, the government’s scrutiny of Erickson is ramping up. In a past filing in the Butina case, the government wrote that Erickson “has aided the defendant’s charged criminal activity for years” including playing an “integral role in the defendant’s efforts to establish an informal line of communication between the Kremlin and the incoming Presidential Administration.”

Erickson sent an infamous email to a top Trump campaign official in May 2016 slugged “Kremlin Connection,” seeking to use the setting of the 2016 NRA annual convention to establish “first contact” between Trump and Butina’s alleged handler, the Russian Central Banker and NRA life member Alexander Torshin. (Torshin and Butina would meet with Donald Trump, Jr. instead.)

The Daily Beast reported this week that Erickson has received a “target letter” from the feds — indicating that he could be charged for acting as secret foreign agent, under a statute characterized by Justice Department veterans as “espionage-lite.” Target letters are generally — though not always — a precursor to an indictment, meaning that Erickson could be brought up on charges within weeks.

Rolling Stone reached out to attorney William Hurd, who is reportedly representing Erickson, to confirm the existence of the target letter; Hurd has not replied.

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