By Chuck Ross
The Justice Department recommended an 18-month prison sentence Friday for Maria Butina, a Russian national who prosecutors claim helped the Russian government by reporting back to Moscow on key political figures in the U.S.
Prosecutors said in their court filing that Butina “was not a spy in the traditional sense” and is not a trained intelligence officer of the Kremlin. Instead, the government claims that Butina took part in a “spotting and assessing” operation on behalf of the Russian government to identify potential intelligence assets in the U.S.
Butina worked with a Russian government official identified as Alexander Torshin to infiltrate conservative groups like the National Rifle Association and to establish contacts with Republican presidential campaigns, according to prosecutors.
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“Acquiring information valuable to a foreign power does not necessarily involve collecting classified documents or engaging in cloak-and-dagger activities,” prosecutors said in Friday’s filing.
“Something as basic as the identification of people who have the ability to influence policy in a foreign power’s favor is extremely attractive to those powers,” it said. “This identification could form the basis of other forms of intelligence operations, or targeting, in the future.”
Butina’s legal team is seeking probation.
As part of her plea deal, Butina admitted that she worked on behalf of the Russian government from 2015 through 2017 under the direction of Torshin, who served as deputy chief of the Russian central bank.
Along with her then-boyfriend, a GOP operative named Paul Erickson, Butina established a relationship with top NRA executives. She also attempted to establish relationships with the Scott Walker presidential campaign, as well as with members of the Trump campaign.
Prosecutors said that Butina’s crimes warrant a 24-month sentence under federal guidelines, far surpassing the six-month recommendation that had been previously expected in the case. Prosecutors did recommend a six-month reduction because Butina has provided “substantial” assistance in another investigation.
Butina is reported to be cooperating with prosecutors in a case against Erickson, who was indicted on fraud charges in South Dakota.
Prosecutors said that Butina sent reports back to Moscow through Torshin profiling key Republican political figures. In some of the exchanges, Butina and Torshin strategized on how to establish more connections with Republicans and other conservative groups.
“Butina’s work involved building a Rolodex of and information about powerful people who had, or were likely to get, access to and influence over the next presidential administration,” prosecutors said. “Butina’s reports back to the Russian Official on the people she was meeting have all the hallmarks of spotting-and-assessing reports.”
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