In plea deal, Russian woman admits to being a secret agent

WASHINGTON — A Russian woman accused of being a secret agent admitted Thursday that she conspired to infiltrate the American gun-rights movement to gather intelligence on conservative political groups as Donald Trump rose to power.

Maria Butina, 30, agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.

The case, which is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has offered insight into how Moscow seeks to influence American policy.

Prosecutors say Butina and her Russian patron, Alexander Torshin, used their contacts in the National Rifle Association to pursue Russian back channels to American conservatives during that campaign, when Republican Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Butina’s case, brought by federal prosecutors in Washington, also comes amid a broader push by the Justice Department to enforce U.S. laws governing foreign agents, including those accused of working for Russia.

As part of her deal, Butina pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent and she agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Prosecutors also say it is “very likely” that she will be deported from the U.S. after her sentence is completed. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, though the defense noted Thursday that federal sentencing guidelines recommend no time to six months.

According to her plea agreement, Butina’s work was directed by Torshin, a Russian government bank official now under sanction by the Treasury Department for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Butina admitted that she “sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” She said her boyfriend, conservative political operative Paul Erickson, helped her as she tried to use his ties with the NRA to set up the back channels. Erickson, who is referred to as “U.S. Person 1” in court papers, he has not been charged.

In their filings, prosecutors have said federal agents found Butina had contact information for people suspected of being employed by Russia’s Federal Security Services, or FSB, the successor intelligence agency to the KGB. Inside her home, they found notes referring to a potential job offer from the FSB, according to the documents.

Investigators recovered several emails and Twitter direct message conversations in which Butina referred to the need to keep her work secret and, in one instance, said it should be “incognito.” Prosecutors said Butina had contact with Russian intelligence officials and that the FBI photographed her dining with a diplomat suspected of being a Russian intelligence agent.

Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, had previously decried the charges against her as “overblown” and said prosecutors criminalized her mundane networking opportunities. He has said his client was a student interested in American politics and wanted to see a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

Butina, jailed since her arrest in July, had mounted an aggressive defense and tried to have the charges against her tossed. But for several weeks, Butina’s lawyers and federal prosecutors had indicated in court papers that they were working toward a resolution in the case.

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