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Maria Butina pleads guilty, says she conspired to infiltrate U.S. political groups

December 13, 2018 GMT

Russian operative Maria Butina pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups with the goal of advancing Russian interests.

Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia.

“Guilty,” Butina responded when asked by Washington-based U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkin how she’d plead.

She faces up to five years in prison, and could be deported at any time after her sentencing.

A sentencing date has not been set, but a status hearing is scheduled for February 5. Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll said she will voluntarily remain in custody until her sentencing.

She is the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence the U.S. and the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert Mueller has charged 25 Russian agents and three Russian companies, but those cases are still pending.

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The charges against Butina were brought by federal prosecutors in Washington, not Mr. Mueller.

Butina admitted she worked with an American political operative “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence of U.S. politics.”

Those efforts were done for the benefit of Russia and directed by a Russian political operative, prosecutors said.

Although prosecutors have not identified the Russian official. He is widely believed to be Alexander Torshin, a Russian banking official who has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Prosecutor Erik Kenerson told the courtroom as early as 2015, Butina suggested to her handler creating “unofficial channels of communications” with powerful conservative political groups and offered herself as the person to open up those connections.

Butina has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Her cooperation will focus on interactions she and her boyfriend Paul Erickson had with the Russian official who directed her operations, according to media reports earlier this week.

Mr. Erickson, a longtime political operative, has not been charged with a crime, but is a target of the investigation, according to media reports earlier this week.

A gun rights activist, Ms. Butina was arrested in July and accused of gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations, including the National Rifle Association, to further Russian interests.

Butina initially pleaded not guilty after her arrest. But on Monday her attorneys and prosecutors told the court she wishes to change her plea. She signed a cooperation agreement over the weekend.