Russian student pleads guilty to plot to influence US politics; reason for advisory counsel revealed

Criminal Justice

Chodyra Mike/

A Russian grad student who attended American University in Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty on Thursday to conspiring to act as a foreign agent in a plea deal that required continued cooperation with federal prosecutors.

Maria Butina, 30, admitted conspiring with a Russian government official “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics,” without notifying the U.S. Department of Justice. News reports have identified the official as Russian central banker Alexander Torshin. Among the publications covering the guilty plea are the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and BuzzFeed News.

Butina’s agreement with federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., acknowledged efforts to develop influence with conservative politicians and to attend conferences of the National Rifle Association as part of that effort.

Prosecutors agreed to drop a second charge of violating a law that requires people working for foreign governments to register with the DOJ.

Butina already has spent five months in jail, and there is a possibility her sentence will amount to time served, according to the New York Times.

During the plea hearing on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan shed light on why she appointed an advisory counsel for Butina earlier this month, according to the coverage by BuzzFeed News and the Wall Street Journal.

Chutkan said recordings of jailhouse calls might suggest that Butina was trying to pass messages to the press in violation of a gag order. Chutkan had imposed the order after she concluded Butina’s defense lawyer, Robert Driscoll, had “crossed a line” with his TV appearances.

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Chutkan said the advisory counsel was appointed to advise Butina on a conflict of interest that could arise if her lawyers wanted a guilty plea to avoid trouble for violation of the gag order. Butina told Chutkan she was “extremely satisfied” with her lawyers, and she waived any potential conflict.

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