(Bloomberg) -- Maria Butina pleaded guilty to acting as an undeclared Russian agent in the U.S. and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, advancing an inquiry into Russia's efforts to build back-channels to politically connected Americans.
The 30-year-old gun enthusiast operated as a Kremlin agent as she befriended National Rifle Association leaders and influential U.S. conservatives, she admitted Thursday in federal court in Washington.
"Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics," prosecutor Erik Kenerson said at the hearing, reading from the government's statement of facts.
Butina appeared in court wearing a green prison jumpsuit and a long-sleeve undershirt with a rip in the left elbow. Her trademark long red hair was braided and she wore eyeglasses. Asked by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan if she agreed with the government's characterization of the conspiracy, Butina said yes.
As part of the plea agreement, Butina may provide information about Paul Erickson, her onetime boyfriend. Erickson matches the description of a man referred to as "U.S. Person 1" in Butina's charging documents. That person connected her with influential Republicans and wrote in a message that he had been involved "in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin" and key officials of the NRA, prosecutors said.
Erickson has visited Butina in jail several times this year, according to her attorney, Robert Driscoll. Bill Hurd, Erickson's lawyer, said his client is "a good American" who "has never done anything to hurt our country and never would."
Hurd was in the courtroom for the proceedings. He declined to comment afterward.
The NRA and the Kremlin didn't respond to requests for comment. The Russian Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
Oleg Morozov, a Russian lawmaker and former senior Kremlin official, told Bloomberg News that the charges against Butina were "absurd."
"She was not secret Russian agent, she did everything publicly and open," Morozov said. "Russia will continue to support her despite of her statements."
Butina, who remains jailed, faces a maximum of five years in prison, but she won't be sentenced immediately. Her cooperation could lead to a reduced punishment. The judge scheduled a status hearing for Feb. 12.
Butina was arrested in July. While in the U.S. starting in 2015, she was working to advance Russia's interests, reporting regularly to a senior Russian official, according to her guilty plea.
The charges were filed by the Justice Department's national security unit and U.S. prosecutors in Washington, rather than by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Butina's admission added to the drumbeat of developments in investigations related to the 2016 presidential election, and there were several signs this week that prosecutors were receiving information from several people close to President Donald Trump.
Trump's longtime fixer was sentenced to three years in prison and said he'd assist prosecutors, and the president's former national security adviser acknowledged he'd sat for 19 interviews with prosecutors and provided thousands of pages of documents. A tabloid publisher with ties to Trump is cooperating, too, after admitting to federal investigators in New York that its CEO talked to people on Trump's nascent campaign about buying and burying damaging stories that could damage the candidate.
Butina traveled to the U.S. in 2015 and entered the U.S. on a student visa in 2016 to study at American University in Washington. She reported to Alexander Torshin, the former deputy chairman of Russia's central bank, court documents show.
Torshin accompanied Butina to a variety of conservative political events. In 2015 and 2016, the pair attended at least one NRA conference and a National Prayer Breakfast, the filings say. At one conference, they met with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Butina also attended Walker's announcement that he was running for president.
At a town-hall-style event in Las Vegas in 2015, Butina asked candidate Trump whether he would improve the U.S. relationship with Russia. Trump said he would.
Butina, who'd started an NRA-like group in Russia called the Right to Bear Arms, was already a fixture in the American gun-rights community. NRA members traveled to Russia in 2013 to attend an event she organized. Among the attendees were Torshin and David Keene, then president of the NRA.
Driscoll, Butina's lawyer, has said his client was a legitimate university student.
The Butina matter has echoes of an earlier espionage case. In 2010, Anna Chapman and nine other "sleeper agents" working secretly in the U.S. on behalf of Russia pleaded guilty and were sent back to Moscow as part of a prisoner exchange.
Butina's plea agreement says she is likely to be deported, but that probably wouldn't happen before prosecutors are finished debriefing her.
Another consequence of her guilty plea is that she's not allowed to own a gun.
(Adds comment by Russian lawmaker.)
--With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov.
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