CNN | 8/18/2019 | Listen

How the case against Maria Butina began to crumble

Updated 3:12 PM ET, Fri April 26, 2019

Washington (CNN) - Maria Butina's case was a headline-grabber from the start.

At the outset, prosecutors alleged the covert Russian agent was so intent on infiltrating Republican political groups and organizations like the National Rifle Association that she was even willing to offer sex to do so.

Her relationship with longtime boyfriend Paul Erickson was merely a "necessary aspect of her activities," the Justice Department initially claimed. Her pursuit of a master's degree at American University was just a cover, prosecutors once said.

But in the nine months since Butina, a 30-year-old gun rights enthusiast, was charged with conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent, many of the sensational details surrounding her case have crumbled. Prosecutors have recanted some allegations and already dropped one charge against her as part of a plea deal.

Despite securing Butina's cooperation as part of the deal, prosecutors have not brought charges against any of the Americans allegedly involved in her scheme to infiltrate GOP political circles and promote Russian interests at the behest of former Russian central banker Alexander Torshin.

On Friday, a federal judge in Washington is set to decide Butina's fate. She is likely to be sent back to Russia, but Judge Tanya Chutkan must first decide how long she'll remain in an American jail, if at all.

Butina's team is pushing for time served, noting her extensive cooperation sessions with the government and the nine months she has already spent behind bars. Prosecutors, however, say Butina's crime deserves a two-year prison sentence, though they recommended she only be sentenced to 18 months due to the extent of her cooperation. They've acknowledged she is not a spy in the traditional sense, but insist she was still involved in a scheme that could have damaged national security.

"I think if I was Miss Butina's defense team or I was the judge, a legitimate question to ask is how is it fair she spends two years in prison when an American citizen, who was arguably a co-conspirator, gets no time at all," Charles Burnham, an attorney, said in reference to Erickson's alleged role in the conspiracy. Burnham has experience in similar cases, having represented one of the accused Russian agents involved in the Anna Chapman spy ring in 2010.

Although Butina was briefly questioned by Robert Mueller's investigators, her case was almost entirely separate from the special counsel's Russia probe. Still, her case, brought by the Justice Department's national security division, was quickly caught up in the cross current of increasingly public tensions between the US and Russia.

When Butina pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign official, the government had already begun walking back some of its most salacious claims -- although not before they had attracted widespread media attention.

Prosecutors have since admitted they misunderstood text messages that were translated from Russian. Butina never volunteered to have sex with another man in exchange for a position with a special interest group. Initially, prosecutors claimed Butina's romance was "duplicitous," but they soon stopped weighing in on Butina's relationship status. They also admitted that her graduate-level education at American University was not merely a front, noting in a later filing "(all) available evidence indicates that Butina had interest in a graduate school education."

The US Attorney's office in DC declined to comment.

Butina's American associates

Prior to her arrest last year, Butina gave documents and spent eight hours testifying to the Senate regarding Torshin, who was subsequently sanctioned by the federal government.

The bulk of Butina's work with prosecutors has focused on Erickson's alleged role in the conspiracy that Butina pleaded guilty to, according to a source familiar with the matter. A GOP political operative from South Dakota, Erickson helped Butina identify politically influential individuals and build inroads in Republican political circles.

In one court filing, prosecutors said Erickson "was instrumental in aiding her covert influence operation, despite knowing its connections to the Russian Official." As part of her plea deal, Butina conceded that she and Erickson conspired to act in the US at Torshin's direction without notifying the Justice Department.

Erickson was indicted in February on wire fraud and money laundering charges in a separate case in South Dakota, but has not faced charges in DC.

Erickson's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. He pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.

Prosecutors have not brought charges against George O'Neill Jr., either. Butina worked with O'Neill, a Rockefeller heir and conservative writer, to arrange "friendship" dinners between Americans and Russians. He also bankrolled some of Butina's expenses while she was in the US, including her tuition, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

"In the two years I knew and spent time with Maria, I found her to be intelligent and charming with a willingness to understand and promote peaceful solutions to some of the world's conflicts," O'Neill wrote in a letter to the judge ahead of Butina's sentencing. "Over the past eight months, Maria has suffered greatly and seen many of her dreams crushed by political circumstances beyond her control."

A lawyer for O'Neill declined to comment.

Not-So-Covert agent

Robert Driscoll, Butina's lawyer, has cast her crimes as little more than a paperwork violation: If she was going to use Republican political circles, the National Prayer Breakfast and the NRA to try to promote Russia interests, she should have registered first.

Butina's lawyers called her a "genuine idealist, and compassionate civil activist," in a recent court filing. "Now, her world has collapsed because of a decision to help and discuss her amateur diplomacy efforts with a Russian official."

Prosecutors, meanwhile, have acknowledged that Butina is no Russian spy. But they insist her crime was still nefarious and that she acted as an "access agent" to help spot people who could be recruited as intelligence assets down the road.

"Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense of trying to gain access to classified information to send back to her home country. She was not a trained intelligence officer," prosecutors acknowledged in a court filing. But, her actions "had the potential to damage the national security of the United States."

Butina's lawyers disagreed with that take. "Maria is not a trained intelligence officer nor a spy in any sense," they wrote. "All Maria has done is accepted responsibility for conspiring to act as an 'agent' -- not a secret agent, not an intelligence agent -- for Torshin, who was a friend but a former official of the Russian Central Bank."

To prove their theory of the case at sentencing, prosecutors have offered up an expert witness, Robert Anderson Jr., a former assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division.

"In my expert opinion, Butina provided the Russian Federation with information that skilled intelligence officers can exploit for years and that may cause significant damage to the United States," Anderson said in a written declaration.

But Butina's lawyers have noted that he was not one of the FBI agents who spent hours questioning Butina, nor has he ever interviewed her.

The arguments from both the prosecution and the defense may be true, said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief who spent years in Russia. Butina could have been part of a Russian influence operation but still had little awareness about how her role fit into the plot, he said.

"If you look at what she did, there really isn't anything nefarious about what she is doing," Hoffman said. "She had no idea where she fit in Vladimir Putin's chess game. She's just a pawn."

Murky sentencing guidelines

It will fall to Judge Chutkan to weigh those factors. It is a decision made more complicated by the fact that there are no clear sentencing guidelines to fit Butina's situation.

When the two sides initially struck a plea agreement, Butina's attorneys wrote into the deal that her crime deserved zero to six months imprisonment compared to other similar crimes. But prosecutors have refused to sign onto that amount, arguing there is no set standard for her foreign agent charge. Federal judges are free to sentence as they see fit, as long as it falls below the maximum set by law, which is five years in this case.

In addition to weighing Butina's actions, the judge will also look to hand down a sentence that would discourage others from following in her footsteps, at a time when the Justice Department is looking closer at unregistered foreign agent cases.

"It's not totally about what Miss Butina did. The judge also has a duty to send a message to other would-be foreign agents," Burnham said. "You can convince the judge that your client is basically Mother Teresa and the judge says, 'I still have the duty of general deterrence to think about.'"


© 2019 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Listen to CNN (low-bandwidth usage)

Go to the full CNN experience