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Plea hearing scheduled for accused Russian spy

Maria Butina, an accused Russian spy who nuzzled up to the National Rifle Association before the 2016 election, appears to have reached a plea deal with the Justice Department, according to a new court filing in her criminal case. CNN's Sara Murray reports.

Posted: Dec 11, 2018 2:18 PM
Updated: Dec 11, 2018 2:45 PM

Maria Butina, an accused Russian spy who nuzzled up to the National Rifle Association before the 2016 election, has begun cooperating with federal prosecutors after agreeing to a plea deal in recent days, according to a source familiar with the matter.

News that Butina had seemed to reach a deal with federal prosecutors first broke earlier 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 Monday morning. Butina's case was brought by federal prosecutors in DC and not by Robert Mueller's team in the special counsel's office.

Her cooperation will mainly focus on telling investigators about the role of her boyfriend Paul Erickson and her interactions with her Russian handlers. A spokesman for the US Attorney's office in DC declined to comment. Butina's lawyer declined to comment for the story. A lawyer for Erickson also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the agreement, revealed 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 first to report Butina agreed to cooperate.

A plea hearing has been set for 3:15 p.m. Wednesday where a judge will need to sign off on the deal. The developments on Monday come after several weeks of hints that Butina might negotiate 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.

Until now, Butina, 30, maintained her innocence and insisted she was simply a foreign student interested in bettering relations between the US and Russia. Butina previously 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.

Plea deal detailed

The draft filing of the plea deal notes that Butina relied 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 identified by name in the draft but their details make them identifiable based on previously known information.

Butina kept Torshin apprised 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.

At one point, Torshin asked her to provide 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," according to the document.

Even though the draft court filing takes pains to outline her efforts to make inroads in conservative political circles, it also waters down other allegations prosecutors made in court.

After previously casting 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 no mention of the sex-for-access allegations prosecutors once laid out in court filings -- only to them walk back later.

Butina's plea offer indicates she will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy, according to a copy of the document obtained by CNN.

Prosecutors estimated a sentence between zero and six months. Butina has already been incarcerated for five months, so the judge could decide to sentence her to time already served.

Her cooperation agreement calls for her to turn over any evidence of crimes she is aware of, submit a full accounting of her financial assets, sit for interviews with law enforcement (and waive right to counsel during those interviews) and testify before grand juries or in trials in DC or elsewhere.

It also notes that, due to her plea, she will likely be deported.

A politically charged case

Her case first became public amid a furor of US-Russia developments. She was arrested 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 declined to endorse US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

Butina's case at first appeared to allege she attempted to do just that -- with prosecutors suggesting she offered sex to gain political access and sought out Trump campaign officials. But prosecutors later admitted they made an error in interpreting the text messages they used as evidence to support their claim 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.

Prior to her arrest, Butina signaled she would be willing to cooperate with investigators on other probes, such as a fraud investigation in South Dakota into Erickson, who is an American conservative activist. Immediately after her arrest, she became unwilling to help.

Prosecutors in their criminal complaint accused Butina of ingratiating herself with politically powerful Americans and groups, including the NRA, and exploiting those connections to try to advance Russian interests. They alleged she was in regular contact with her Russian backers, including 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 showed 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 compared her to Anna Chapman, another accused Russian spy who was deported from the US in a prisoner swap in 2010, and that she tried 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 involved in politics lasted throughout her tenure as a graduate student at American University, according to prosecutors. They had cast her studies as little more than a cover for her spy work.

By changing her plea, Butina will likely be forced to return to Russia upon release from jail. She is currently being held in solitary confinement in a northern Virginia jail. She and her lawyer have repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, argued that she should be released on house arrest or at least moved out of solitary confinement.

Even under scrutiny from federal investigators, Erickson has continued to visit Butina in jail. He has not been charged with a crime.

This story has been updated.

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