By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal court on Wednesday to detain alleged Russian agent Maria Butina pending her trial, saying she poses a serious flight risk, has ties to Russian intelligence and will likely appeal to people in the Russian government to help her flee.
The Justice Department said Butina has been in contact with Russian intelligence operatives, kept contact information for several Russian agents and had a handwritten note in her Washington apartment asking how to respond to an offer of employment with a Russian intelligence agency.
The 29-year-old former American University graduate student was set to appear for a preliminary hearing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday afternoon.
She has been accused of working with a high-powered Russian official and two unnamed American citizens, trying to infiltrate a pro-gun rights organization in the United States and influence the United States’ foreign policy toward Russia.
The gun rights group was not named. However, her social media accounts show she attended many National Rifle Association events and met with many top officials of the lobbying group.
Her attorney, Robert Driscoll, has said she is not a Russian agent and poses no flight risk, after she was arrested on Sunday without warning.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said there were no grounds for her arrest, and that its embassy in Washington has requested a meeting with Butina.
In the 29-page filing, prosecutors said Butina has ties to Russian oligarchs, including one with a net worth of $1.2 billion, and that she was previously was in touch with oligarchs about funding her trip to the United States.
Butina, who founded a pro-gun Russian advocacy group called Right to Bear Arms, has not been charged with espionage or with being a member of a Russian intelligence service.
The Justice Department alleges that Butina lied to the government when she applied for a student visa, by declaring she no longer worked for a top Russian official who was recently sanctioned by the Treasury Department.
Court records did not name the people with whom she allegedly conspired.
However, the description of the Russian official closely matches that of Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank who was sanctioned in April.
The Russian Central Bank declined to comment on the case.
Butina’s Facebook page includes numerous pictures of her and Torshin, as well as photos of her attending other events where she met well-known American politicians, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Butina allegedly arranged dinners in Washington and New York and tried to develop relationships with American politicians to establish “back channel” lines of communication to “penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus,” the Justice Department’s complaint said.
In their filing Wednesday, prosecutors also said Butina lived with a 56-year-old American citizen identified as “U.S. Person 1” and was involved in a personal relationship with him.
The government claims this person helped her complete some of her schoolwork at American University and that Butina viewed the relationship as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities.”
In documents seized by the FBI, Butina “complained about living with U.S. Person 1,” they wrote.
In some of the photos on social media, Butina is seen with Paul Erickson, a South Dakota-based conservative political activist who is listed in public records as being 56 years old.
South Dakota public records show Butina and Erickson established a company in 2016 together called Bridges LLC that lists its address at Erickson’s home and cites Butina as an authorized person for the company.
It was unclear from the records what the company does or why they incorporated it.
Erickson did not return several calls from Reuters seeking comment.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Tim Ahmann and Jonathan Oatis)