WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal judge sentenced Maria Butina to 18 months in jail Friday, with credit for time served, for conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government.
“The offense Ms. Butina has pled to was serious and jeopardized this country’s national security,” District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan said as she handed down the sentence.
Butina entered the courtroom in a green prison jumpsuit, her hair loose and her hands cuffed in front of her. Her voice cracked with emotion as she addressed the court before her sentencing.
“I just didn’t register because I didn’t know to,” Butina said. “Ignorance of law, however, is not an excuse, either in the U.S. or in Russia. So I humbly ask for mercy.”
Butina pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent last December, and she has been cooperating with the government.
She has been in detention for nine months, and her attorneys have argued for a sentence of time served. Friday’s ruling means Butina will face another nine months in prison. The judge did not impose a fine.
Robert Driscoll, one of Butina’s attorneys, said he does not anticipate any appeals.
Starting in 2015, Butina sought to get close to members of the National Rifle Association and other influential conservatives, including Republican presidential candidates, at the direction of former Russian government official Alexander Torshin.
“I think anyone who’s a foreign national in this country should be exceedingly concerned by the government’s position in this case and what they did here,” Driscoll told reporters outside the courthouse after the sentencing.
“Anyone who thinks that someone who wasn’t Russian would be in this situation is fooling themselves,” he added.
Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-OR) is leading an investigation into Russian influence in the NRA, where the president is delivering an address on Friday. Butina testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee last April, and Driscoll told ThinkProgress he does not anticipate more requests from Congress. Asked if Butina would cooperate if Congress does ask for more information, Driscoll said only, “We’ll see.”
At the heart of Friday’s hearing was a debate over the nature of Butina’s crime. Was she a spy tasked with infiltrating the American gun-rights movement on behalf of a hostile foreign power? Or was she simply an “amateur diplomat,” as the defense put it in its pre-sentencing memo, trying to please her Russian mentor while meeting influential Americans who might boost her future career?
In court and a pre-sentencing memo, Butina’s attorneys sought to portray her as a hard-working student, a devoted daughter, and an ambitious entrepreneur who made a mistake out of over-eagerness. They also tried to counter media depictions of Butina as a covert spy.
“Maria stole no sensitive information. She engaged in no covert activity. She never lied to our government,” Alfred Carry, another of Butina’s lawyers, said.
The government painted a different picture, portraying Butina as a sophisticated foreign agent who, while not a trained spy who stole classified information, nonetheless did real damage to U.S. national security by seeking access to influential conservatives and reporting back on them to her handler Torshin.
“This is not a registration offense,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson told the court. “This is a case where the defendant acted in the United States as the agent of a foreign power. And, as she said in her own words, she did so primarily for the benefit of the Russian Federation.”
A pre-sentencing declaration by Robert Anderson Jr., former deputy director of the FBI’s counter-intelligence division, painted Butina as part of a so-called “spot-and-assess” operation aimed at identifying Americans who could be potential targets for recruitment by Russian intelligence in the future.
The defense had sought to have Anderson’s declaration excluded from record because, they argued, it injected a new theory of the case into the sentencing phase. The government disputed that, and in the end Chutkan agreed with the government’s portrayal.
“This was no simple misunderstanding by an over-eager foreign student,” Chutkan said from the bench.
In her own address to the court, Butina emphasized her family in Russia, her Christian faith, and the damage her actions may have caused to the U.S.-Russia relationship she said that she had always hoped to foster. Butina also spoke of the other women she is detained with, saying that she has “seen those who have never had visitors or any money, even for a 30 second phone call.”
“I am so grateful for what I have, dear judge,” Butina said.
Chutkan largely agreed with the picture the government painted of Butina and her actions, saying that it was “sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations.” But she also acknowledged the defense’s portrayals, saying that she does not doubt that Butina is hard-working, intelligent, earnest, and devoted to her family.
Before bailiffs lead Butina out of the courtroom, likely for the last time, Chutkan gave her one last piece of advice.
“You are a young woman, you are smart, you are hard working, you have a future ahead of you,” the judge said after reading the sentence. “I wish you the best luck.”