Federal prosecutors in the case against alleged Russian agent Maria Butina complained to a judge Wednesday about media appearances by Butina’s attorney and said they would not provide evidence to the defense until a protective order was in place to prevent its distribution to the media.
No trial date was set Wednesday for Butina, who has been held without bond since her arrest July 15.
Her lawyer, Robert N. Driscoll, said Wednesday he would be seeking a new hearing to have Butina released from jail pending trial. Prosecutors argued Butina was a flight risk, saying she was arrested in an apartment filled with packed boxes indicating her intent to leave Washington, and she could enter a Russian embassy or diplomatic vehicle and evade prosecution indefinitely.
Butina, 29, is charged with conspiring with Russian officials to act as an agent of a foreign government and also with failing to register as a foreign agent.
The officials are not named in the indictment, but Butina was often seen accompanying Russian central banker Alexander Torshin to meetings of the National Rifle Association and other political events in the U.S. A long series of emails between Butina and a mentor in Russia cited in filings appears to involve Torshin.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas N. Saunders told U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan Wednesday the government wanted to provide Driscoll with pretrial discovery immediately, initially comprising about 1.5 million files. But prosecutors want restrictions on how Driscoll can use or disclose some of that information, and Saunders said Driscoll rejected any constraints.
The judge gave the prosecution until Aug. 8 to file a proposed protective order and Driscoll a week after that for his response.
Driscoll entered a plea of not guilty for Butina at her arraignment last week where she was ordered detained. He said she was in Washington to obtain a master’s degree from American University, which she did in May, and to network with American politicians and groups.
In asking to limit public comments, Saunders noted Driscoll had made several appearances on television news shows to defend Butina and claimed he “repeatedly violated the local rule” at court governing attorneys’ public comments about a case. Saunders quoted a Driscoll appearance on CNN in which the attorney said, “I think most of the case is taken completely out of context.”
Chutkan noted “there is a line between defending your client and violating the local rule.” Saunders argued Driscoll “can’t mischaracterize the case.”
The judge turned to Driscoll and asked, “Do you think it’s in your client’s interest to have this case tried in the press?”
Driscoll said he was not trying the case, but “Ms. Butina is the subject of national incorrect media reporting that I’m trying to push back on.” He said prosecutors have alleged Butina offered sex in exchange for a job and are “refusing to provide evidence for that.” A one-sentence reference to this in a government filing did not provide any attribution for the claim or identify the organization with whom she allegedly sought a job.
Driscoll added, “I think I’ve got to zealously represent her. The appearances I’ve done are an eye dropper in a negative tsunami that’s already convicted her.”
After the hearing, Driscoll appeared momentarily in front of a clutch of cameras and microphones to say only he is “confident that Ms. Butina will be vindicated at the end of this process.”
Federal prosecutors appear interested in determining whether Butina helped funnel money into American elections, possibly through the NRA, although the case is being handled by national security prosecutors and not special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team. Driscoll said Butina had been contacted by the Federal Election Commission in March regarding campaign contributions and provided 8,000 pages of documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee in April. Senate Democrats have pushed the NRA unsuccessfully for information on how they received and used Russian financial contributions.
A man cited in court documents as Butina’s “funder” after she moved to the U.S. on a student visa in 2016 was identified by The Washington Post this week as Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev.
In court, Driscoll said he also wanted a transcript of Butina’s eight hours of testimony to the intelligence committee behind closed doors in April, because it may contain evidence that could aid his client. He said the committee allowed him to read the transcript but not copy it, but would provide the transcript to prosecutors if asked. Saunders said he did not have a copy, and the issue of access to the transcript was not resolved during the court hearing.
Butina launched a gun rights group in Russia in 2012 and told the Senate Intelligence Committee Nikolaev provided funding for that group, sources familiar with her testimony told The Post. A spokesman for Nikolaev declined to confirm whether he gave her financial support. Prosecutors described the “funder” as “a known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.”
Butina also is allegedly connected to Russian intelligence officials. Prosecutors said in one court filing she had contact information for several Russian Federal Security Services, or FSB, employees, the Russian internal security agency, and she was photographed in March dining with a Russian diplomat suspected of being an intelligence officer shortly before he was expelled from the country.
Butina has said she became friendly with the NRA because of a shared interest in gun rights, and she and Torshin hosted a group of American gun enthusiasts in Moscow in 2013. But she said her group, “Right to Bear Arms,” was “not very popular” with Russian officials, according to an email she sent The Post last year. “No government official has EVER approached me about ‘fostering ties’ with any Americans,” she wrote.
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.