WASHINGTON – Maria Butina, the Russian gun rights activist who pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for the Russian government in the US, was sentenced on Friday to 18 months in prison, although she'll credit for the nine months she's already served.
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan said she agreed with prosecutors that Butina wasn't just a graduate student trying to learn about the US political system — but rather was gathering information about Americans who could influence US policy and relaying that information to a Russian official for the benefit of the Russian government, at a time when Russia was trying to interfere in US elections.
"This was not a simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student," Chutkan said.
Butina will be deported from the United States once she completes her prison sentence. Once that happens, she won't be allowed to ask for permission to come back to the United States for 10 years.
Butina, 30, has been in jail since her arrest in mid-July 2018. She pleaded guilty in December 2018 and agreed to cooperate with the government. Her lawyers argued she shouldn't face any additional prison time — they put her sentencing range between zero to six months — and asked the judge to instead sentence her to the time she'd already served and have her immediately deported back to Russia.
In remarks to the judge on Friday, Butina said she never intended to hurt anyone. She said she came to the United States to get a degree and, in the process, hoped to build her resume and improve US–Russia relations by attending conferences and organizing friendship dinners.
"I wanted a future career in the international policy. At the same time, I wished to mend relations while improving my own résumé, so I sought to build bridges between my motherland and the country I grew to love," Butina said.
Butina said that if he had known she needed to register her activities with the US government she would have done so "without delay," but she also said she knew that ignorance of the law wasn't an excuse.
"The United States has always been kind to me. And while it has never been my intent to harm the United States people, I did just that, by not notifying the government of my actions," she said.
She concluded: "Now I beg for mercy, for the chance to go home and rebuild my life."
Prosecutors argued Butina faced a much higher sentencing range, and asked for a sentence of 18 months in prison. They argued her case differed from other defendants charged with failing to report information about their activities to the US government — such as failing to report campaign contributions or file tax returns — because she was acting at the direction of a foreign official.
"This is not a registration offense. This is a case where the defendant acted in the United States as the agent of a foreign government," Assistant US Attorney Erik Kenerson said Friday. "She did so for the benefit of Russia."
The government cited a former FBI official, Robert Anderson Jr., who submitted a declaration opining that Butina was part of a broad Russian intelligence operation, an assessment that Butina's lawyers opposed including in the record leading up to sentencing. Butina was not charged with any espionage offenses.
When Chutkan announced Butina's sentence, she cited Anderson's findings, saying there "can be no doubt" that Butina pleaded guilty to an offense that was serious and "jeopardized this country's national security."
Butina's attorney Alfred Carry argued Friday that Butina didn't know she was violating the law, and disputed that she was acting as a spy or as a proxy for the Russian government. He concluded by appealing to something he had in common with Chutkan — their shared background as public defenders — and paraphrased a famous quote from public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, that, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."
Chutkan ended the hearing by addressing Butina and saying she agreed with Carry's reference to Stevenson.
"You are not the worst thing you have ever done. You are a young woman, you are smart, you are hardworking, you have a future ahead of you," Chutkan said. "I wish you the best of luck."
Although Butina's case involved what prosecutors described as a planned Russian influence operation in the United States, it wasn't brought by special counsel Robert Mueller's office. The case is being handled by the US attorney's office in Washington.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Butina's other attorney Robert Driscoll said Butina had spoken with Mueller's office as part of her cooperation deal, but noted she wasn't included in Mueller's report.
"I found it curious that that was mentioned, that what she did was during the time of Russian election interference as alleged by the judge. When in fact had she been involved in any of that, I would imagine, special counsel Mueller would have mentioned it somewhere in his 400 pages if she had anything to do with it. But he did not," Driscoll said.
Butina was a high-profile figure in certain conservative figures before her arrest. She was a prominent gun rights activist in Russia, and regularly traveled to NRA conventions in the US, as well as the Conservative Political Action Conference and President Donald Trump's inauguration.
After she was arrested, Butina's lawyers had argued that she was just a graduate student with a strong interest in politics and US–Russia relations, not a spy or Russian agent involved in nefarious activities. But prosecutors alleged that South Dakota GOP operative Paul Erickson, who became Butina's boyfriend, helped connect her with prominent US conservatives, and that she sent that information to a Russian official she was working with, Aleksandr Torshin, a senior official at the Central Bank of Russia, and wanted to set up a backchannel between those Americans and Russia.
Erickson was charged earlier this year in an alleged fraud scheme that appeared unrelated to Butina. His case is pending.
In sentencing submissions filed before Friday's hearing, Butina's lawyers wrote that she got involved in gun rights issues in Russia in her early twenties, and eventually became the "face" of the movement, which is how she met Torshin, a former member of the Russian parliament. Torshin connected her with the NRA, which became her entry into the US political world.
Butina's lawyers said that although she did work for Torshin and provided him with information about the US political landscape that she knew Torshin might share with other bank officers or members of the Russian foreign ministry, she did not act "under orders or for money."
Prosecutors countered that Butina carried out activities in the United States under Torshin's "direction" from 2015 to 2017, provided him with information about Americans who could influence US policy, and tried to establish a backchannel between Russia and those Americans. They wrote that she wasn't "a spy in the traditional sense" of trying to get classified information, but they presented a declaration from Anderson, who wrote that she was part of a "deliberate intelligence operation" by the Russian government.
Anderson wrote that Butina's actions presented "the classic pattern of a spot-and-assess operation" — identifying individuals that Russian intelligence could potentially recruit as assets.
Butina's lawyers protested and asked Chutkan to strike Anderson's declaration from the record. They argued the government was unfairly trying to introduce a new theory at the last minute, that Anderson's declaration was speculative and lacked evidence, and that the government couldn't try to insert espionage allegations when they hadn't charged Butina with that crime.
Chutkan asked the lawyers if they wanted more time to respond to the filing, but Butina's lawyers said it would take months to put together a "meaningful rebuttal," and repeated their request that the judge strike Anderson's filing altogether. The day before the sentencing hearing, Chutkan denied the request, writing in a one paragraph order that judges were allowed to consider information at sentencing from a variety of sources.
Chutkan gave Butina's lawyers an opportunity to question Anderson, who was at court on Friday, but Driscoll declined.