WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A woman accused of acting as a Russian agent to infiltrate the powerful National Rifle Association lobby group and influence U.S. policy toward Moscow is expected to plead guilty in federal court on Thursday in a deal that could help prosecutors gain insight into Russian efforts to meddle in American politics.
FILE PHOTO: Maria Butina appears in a police booking photograph released by the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. August 18, 2018. Alexandria Sheriff’s Office/Handout via REUTERS
Maria Butina, a Russian former graduate student at American University in Washington who has publicly advocated for gun rights, is slated to change her plea from not guilty to guilty in a hearing before Judge Tanya Chutkan in U.S. District Court in Washington. Butina was charged in July with acting as an agent of Russia’s government and conspiracy to take actions on behalf of Moscow.
As part of the plea agreement, she is expected to cooperate with prosecutors during an ongoing investigation, according to U.S. media reports. The hearing, which the judge had delayed by a day, is set to begin at 10:30 a.m. EST.
Prosecutors have accused Butina, who was jailed awaiting trial, of working with a Russian official and two U.S. citizens to try to infiltrate the NRA, a group closely aligned with Republican politicians including President Donald Trump, and sway Washington’s policy toward Moscow.
Butina’s lawyers previously identified the Russian official as Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who was targeted with U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in April.
One of the two Americans cited in the prosecution’s criminal complaint was Paul Erickson, a conservative U.S. political activist who was dating Butina. Neither Erickson nor Torshin has been accused by prosecutors of wrongdoing.
Moscow has labeled the case against Butina “fabricated” and called for her release.
The prosecutors in the Butina case are not from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Moscow to help him win.
The prosecution’s complaint against Butina did not explicitly mention Trump’s campaign. Reuters previously reported that Butina was a Trump supporter who bragged at Washington parties that she could use her political connections to help people get jobs in his administration.
Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow. Russia has denied interfering in American politics.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham