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Maria Butina's Lawyer Demands Proof Of Alleged Sex-For-Job Proposition

Maria Butina, in an orange suit in this sketch, listens as her attorney argues for the return of Butina's computer and other seized materials during a hearing in federal court in Washington on Wednesday.
Dana Verkouteren
Maria Butina, in an orange suit in this sketch, listens as her attorney argues for the return of Butina's computer and other seized materials during a hearing in federal court in Washington on Wednesday.

Updated at 12:10 p.m. ET

The lawyer for a woman accused of being a Russian agent dueled with government attorneys on Wednesday over evidence in the case, including the allegation that she attempted to use sex to gain access to an organization she targeted.

Attorney Robert Driscoll said he demanded evidence to back up a prosecutors' declaration in earlier court documents that Maria Butina had offered sex for a job.

"We have no idea what the government's talking about," he said. "We don't believe it's true."

Lawyers for the government had included that and other allegations in an earlier motion that asked a federal magistrate judge to order that Butina be jailed ahead of her trial. Butina has been controlled by Russian handlers since her arrival in the United States and has been corresponding with its FSB spy agency, prosecutors said.

Moreover, even though she has been in a relationship with a person whom court documents did not identify — but whom NPR has confirmed is political fundraiser Paul Erickson — Butina had complained about him and made the offer of sex to someone else in order to gain access, the government alleged.

Butina's apparent deceptiveness and connections to Russian officialdom made her a serious flight risk, prosecutors argued, and a judge agreed that she remain confined. Butina appeared with her attorney opposite Justice Department prosecutors in a status conference in Washington on Wednesday to negotiate what happens next.

Who can see what?

Driscoll said he not only wants the government to back up its salacious claim, he wants it to return Butina's computers, mobile phone and other materials seized by FBI investigators.

Driscoll also said investigators had seized Butina's diary.

Attorney Thomas Saunders of the Justice Department, however, argued that Driscoll was asking for "free rein" with evidence in the case, and wanted Judge Tanya Chutkan to establish boundaries to protect other work that's still underway.

"Our concerns are about protecting the integrity of ongoing investigations not just in this case but others," Saunders said.

Butina's case has been linked to Russia's broader, years-long campaign of influence against the United States, but it is being handled by the National Security Division of the Justice Department, not by special counsel Robert Mueller.

It wasn't clear whether Saunders was alluding to cases that might involve other potential human suspects at large within the United States or the government's broader investigation into the attack on the 2016 election.

Prosecutors did say they're ready to turn over about 1.5 million documents, with more to come in a few weeks, once they agree on a protective order to govern how Butina and her attorney can use the information.

Another point of dispute centered on public comments made about the case — Saunders pointed to interviews that Driscoll has given, including with NPR, that he said undercut the seriousness of the charges against Butina.

This is a much more serious charge than simply not filing paperwork under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Saunders said

"The defendant's being charged with acting as a foreign agent and conspiring to do the same — this is not a mere FARA violation," he said.

Driscoll discounted the idea that he had underplayed Butina's case and said that the government, with its lascivious claims, needed to be checked in the court of public opinion.

"The appearances I've done are an eye dropper in the tsunami of negative press that's already convicted her," he said.

Chutkan declined to impose a gag order for now but she did not rule out the idea. Both sides in the case are due back in court on Sept. 10.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.