Russian Maria Butina convicted of conspiracy related to lobbying activities in U.S.
Butina has agreed to co-operate with federal authorities, faces up to 6 months in prison
A woman accused of acting as a Russian agent to infiltrate the powerful gun lobby group NRA and influence U.S. policy toward Moscow pleaded guilty in U.S. Federal Court on Thursday to a single count of conspiracy, in a deal with prosecutors that could give them insight into Russian meddling in American politics.
Maria Butina, a Russian former graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., who publicly advocated for gun rights, entered the plea in a hearing before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. She also agreed to co-operate with prosecutors.
Butina, 30, was charged by prosecutors in July with acting as an agent of Russia's government and conspiracy to take actions on behalf of Moscow. She had earlier pleaded not guilty before changing her plea during Thursday's hearing.
Prosecutors accused Butina, who was jailed while she awaited trial, of working with a Russian official and two U.S. citizens to try to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, a group closely aligned with Republican politicians including President Donald Trump, and sway Washington's policy toward Moscow.
Although there are no sentencing guidelines for her specific crime, her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, estimated that under U.S. sentencing guidelines for similar crimes she could face up to six months in prison. Butina also faces the possibility of deportation to Russia after she finishes whatever sentence she is given.
As part of Butina's ongoing co-operation in the case, the judge did not set a sentencing date. A status hearing was scheduled for Feb. 12.
Conspired with 2 Americans, Russian official
In the statement of offence read aloud in court, one of the prosecutors said Butina had drafted a March 2015 "Diplomacy Project" that called for establishing unofficial back channels of communication between high-ranking American politicians to help benefit Russia.
As part of that plan, she acknowledged that she conspired with two Americans and a Russian official.
Butina's lawyers previously identified the Russian official as Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia's central bank who was targeted with U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in April.
One of the two Americans cited in the prosecution's criminal complaint was Paul Erickson, a conservative U.S. political activist who was dating Butina.
Neither man's name was explicitly mentioned in the statement of offence, though Erickson's description appears to match that of "Person 1" mentioned in the statement of offence read in court. That statement said Person 1 helped advise Butina which American politicians she should target for meetings, and her plan was carried out on behalf of the Russian official.
The "Diplomacy Project" document was crafted by Butina with help from Person 1, prosecutors said. To carry out the plan, Butina requested $125,000 from a Russian billionaire to attend conferences and set up "separate meetings with interested parties" such as other Russian businessmen or people with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they said.
In April 2015, Butina travelled to the United States to attend a gun rights event, the description of which appears to match that of the NRA's annual meeting, prosecutors said.
An attorney for Erickson could not be immediately reached for comment.
Putin scoffs at charges
After she was charged, Russia labelled the case against Butina "fabricated" and called for her release. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about Butina on Tuesday in Moscow, a day after U.S. court filings indicated she would plead guilty in Washington.
"She risks 15 years in jail. For what?" Putin asked. "I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on. Nobody knows anything about her."
On Thursday, Leonid Slutsky, the chair of the Russian State Duma's foreign affairs committee, said he was convinced Butina had been pressured to confess and had fallen victim to a "political inquisition."
The prosecutors in the Butina case are not from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. election and whether Trump's campaign conspired with Moscow to help him win.
Nevertheless, Butina's guilty plea makes her the first Russian citizen to be convicted of working to shape U.S. policy in the time period spanning the 2016 election campaign. Mueller has brought criminal charges against a series of Russian individuals and entities, but those cases are pending.
The prosecution's complaint against Butina did not explicitly mention Trump's campaign. Reuters previously reported that Butina was a Trump supporter who bragged at Washington parties that she could use her political connections to help people get jobs in his administration.
Butina even asked Trump a question at a gathering of U.S. conservatives in Las Vegas in 2015 when he was running for president, querying him about American relations with Russia and economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump responded that as president he would "get along very nicely with Putin" and "I don't think you'd need the sanctions."
Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow. Russia has denied interfering in American politics.