Putin disputes Maria Butina’s guilty plea as DOJ seeks Russian’s silence, cooperation
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday repudiated the guilty plea entered by Maria Butina, a Russian gun rights activist who recently admitted to conspiring against the United States, hours after the U.S. Department of Justice told a D.C. federal court judge about her cooperation agreement with investigators.
“I don’t understand what she could have pleaded guilty to because she was not there to fulfill any government tasks, I assure you, counter to whatever she was coerced to say under threat of a 12- to 15-year jail sentence,” Mr. Putin said during a press conference.
“She and her attorney are fighting to get her out of prison. There was no reason to put her in there, in the first place,” Mr. Putin added.
Butina, 30, pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to one count of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government, and the presiding judge asked during a subsequent hearing if the court should keep a gag order in place preventing her from discussing its details pending sentencing.
“Keeping the Order in place through sentencing would safeguard the rights of any potential defendants who may later be charged in connection with this matter, especially if any other person is charged as a result of the defendant’s cooperation,” Jessie K. Lieu responded Wednesday on behalf of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C.
Alongside pleading guilty to a single felony, Butina entered an agreement with prosecutors this month promising to assist investigators with “any and all matters as to which the government deems the cooperation relevant.”
Indeed, prosecutors wrote in a court document filed Friday that investigators wished to move Butina to be interviewed “concerning an ongoing federal investigation.” The document has since been removed from Butina’s case docket.
A former student of American University, Butina was arrested in July in connection with allegedly attempting to covertly advance Russian interests in part by infiltrating groups including the National Rifle Association and Republican Party. She initially pleaded not guilty prior to reaching an agreement with prosecutors this month.
Lawyers representing Paul Erickson, a Republican activist, NRA member and Butina’s boyfriend, received a so-called “target letter” from the Justice Department earlier this month suggesting he is under investigation, The Daily Beast first reported.
“Paul Erickson is a good American,” his lawyer, William Hurd, responded last week. “He has never done anything to harm our country and never would.”
Entered by U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan on Sept. 12, the disputed gag order prohibits Butina “from making statements to the media or in public settings that pose a substantial likelihood of material prejudice to this case.”
“Butina requests that, consistent with First Amendment principles and the narrow local rule that authorizes it, the gag order should be vacated,” Robert N. Driscoll, Butina’s defense lawyer in the case, argued on her behalf Wednesday.
A sentencing hearing for Butina has not yet been set.