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Feds said alleged Russian spy Maria Butina used sex for influence. Now, they're walking that back.

It's an embarrassing climb-down by prosecutors, but the core accusation that she spent years as an unregistered agent of the Russian government remains unresolved.

by Greg Walters
Sep 10 2018, 1:00pm

Remember all those salacious stories about the alleged Russian spy Maria Butina offering up sex in exchange for political influence? The feds who made those claims in July have now quietly admitted they might have just misread her text messages.

In a filing disclosed around midnight on Friday, the government quietly backed off the most salacious detail in its case against the 29-year-old gun enthusiast from Siberia, saying that part might simply have been “mistaken.”

Butina’s lawyer fired back with both barrels, arguing the very public accusation had unfairly smeared Butina, and that the subsequent admission of error “reeks of desperation.”

“The government’s walkback of their false allegations is welcome, but the damage has been done to Maria’s reputation,” Butin’s attorney Robert Driscoll wrote in an email to VICE News early Monday morning. “Unfortunately, this is far from the only example of the government jumping to conclusions in this case. Criminal charges are not the place for guessing, supposition, and innuendo.”

While the embarrassing climb-down by prosecutors represents a public relations victory for Butina, the core accusation against her — that she spent years as an unregistered agent of the Russian government — remains unresolved.

And meanwhile, her case is steadily rolling forward: In their Friday night filing, prosecutors maintained that regardless of whether sex was part of her spy toolkit, she still shouldn’t be let out on bail.

“Even granting that the government’s understanding of this particular text conversation was mistaken, other communications and materials in the government’s possession (and produced to the defense) call into doubt the defendant’s claim that her relationship with U.S. Person 1 is a sufficiently strong tie to ensure her appearance in court to face the charges against her if she is released.”

On Monday, the judge in her case agreed, denying her request to be released on bail, Reuters reported.

Judge Tanya Chutkan slapped prosecutors for their “rather salacious” accusation, saying she could easily see Butina had been joking in her text messages about offering sex.

Judge Chutkan also imposed a gag order in the case, saying that some of the public comments of Butina’s attorney, Driscoll, had “crossed the line.”

Butina stands accused of operating as an agent of the Russian government while linking up with high-level Republicans and members of the National Rifle Association after founding a Russian group called “Right to Bear Arms.”

She had moved to Washington, D.C., and enrolled in grad school at American University, and started spending a lot of time hobnobbing in political circles, including even a brief meet-and-greet with President Trump’s son.

Butina’s romantic relationship with with an older man — referred to in documents as “US Person 1” and widely identified as Republican operative Erick Erickson, 56 — was cast as part of her mission. Prosecutors noted that she complained about him to her co-workers, and said that “on at least one occasion Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”

Cover image: In this image from April 22, 2012, Maria Butina poses for a photo at a shooting range in Moscow. (AP Photo/Pavel Ptitsin)