Maria Butina Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Influence U.S. Politics

By ron Tau

WASHINGTON—A Russian woman accused of acting as an agent of Moscow pleaded guilty on Thursday to being part of a conspiracy to influence U.S. politics by becoming involved with the National Rifle Association and conservative activists.

Prosecutors allege that Maria Butina, 30, led a double life while in the U.S. on a student visa, covertly working with a top Russian banking official to develop back-channel relationships with conservative American politicians, as she tried to cultivate and infiltrate the influential gun-rights group with the hope of making connections with prominent political players in Republican circles.

Ms. Butina isn’t alleged to have been part of the “active measures” campaign run by Russian military intelligence during the 2016 campaign. But like many other avenues of Moscow’s influence being examined by government investigators, her mission was allegedly to try to influence the direction of U.S. politics and cultivate powerful allies.

In a court hearing before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, prosecutors said Ms. Butina’s actions were part of an effort directed by the Russian official to develop relationships in the U.S. during and after the presidential campaign and lay the groundwork for contacts with the incoming Trump administration.

Prosecutors alleged that Ms. Butina’s work was directed by an unnamed Russian official, previously identified by The Wall Street Journal as Alexander Torshin, then Russia’s deputy central-bank governor and a target of U.S. sanctions. They also alleged that Paul Erickson, a Republican political consultant with whom Ms. Butina was romantically involved, was part of the effort. Mr. Erickson isn’t identified by name in the documents and hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Prosecutors said Ms. Butina recognized as early as 2015 that Republicans were likely to take control of the presidency after the 2016 election and drafted a proposal with Mr. Erickson’s help suggesting that Russia use informal conduits to influence the direction of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia.

“Butina stated she had laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration,” prosecutors wrote in the charging documents accompanying her plea.

As part of the plea agreement, the government dropped a separate charge of acting as a foreign agent. Ms. Butina, who had initially pleaded not guilty, could receive up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. The sentencing guidelines cited as part of the plea agreement, however, suggest a sentence of up to six months in jail and a fine up to $9,500. As part of her plea, Ms. Butina has agreed to cooperate with the government on other investigations, which could reduce the severity of her sentence.

Typically, anyone working as an agent of a foreign government must register with the Justice Department unless they are a diplomat or some other type of official envoy.

The Butina case is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian electoral interference, but it reflects the greater scrutiny facing an array of alleged Russian attempts to intervene in U.S. politics and society.

When arrested in July, Ms. Butina denied acting improperly, saying she was engaged in the same sort of networking and outreach as many other young people living and working in Washington. She has been in custody since her arrest and is likely to be deported after serving her sentence, officials said. She will remain in custody until her sentencing, which is expected to take place early next year.

The case—already unusual due to the nature of the charges—took some unexpected twists and turns.

Prosecutors were forced to recant allegations they had made accusing Ms. Butina of offering sex in exchange for a job, admitting they were mistaken in their reading of some text messages.

And at Thursday’s hearing, Judge Chutkan said she had appointed a federal public defender to join Ms. Butina’s legal team earlier this month, after being made aware of concerns by prosecutors about potential conflicts of interest on the team.

Prosecutors provided the judge evidence, gleaned from jailhouse phone calls and conversations, that Ms. Butina’s lawyers may have urged her to pass messages to the press, in violation of the judge’s gag order.

The prosecutors also suggested they were concerned Ms. Butina’s lawyers might have pressured her to plead guilty, which would end the prosecution and thereby avoid any sanctions from the judge for violating the gag order.

The judge didn’t rule on whether the lawyers had in fact committed a violation, but she appointed a federal defender to ensure that Ms. Butina was adequately represented by an attorney with no ethical conflict.

The case has become a diplomatic flashpoint between the U.S. and Russia, a relationship already under strain over allegations about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Russian officials raised Ms. Butina’s case multiple times with American counterparts. They have repeatedly said they view Ms. Butina as a political prisoner and hostage who is being unfairly prosecuted.

Russian foreign-ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has said Ms. Butina was arrested “under fabricated charges.” The ministry’s official Twitter account still features a photo of Ms. Butina with the hashtag #FreeMariaButina.

Justice Department officials deny mistreating Ms. Butina in any way.

Write to Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com