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Justice Department Calls Russian Woman, Maria Butina, A Flight Risk


The woman who is accused of conspiring to act as a Russian agent inside the United States will appear in court today. Her name is Maria Butina. And she's been detained since Sunday on a charge of conspiracy. Prosecutors say she was trying to influence American policymakers to favor Russian interests. NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this story. Good morning, Carrie.


KING: All right, so the Justice Department has just filed new court papers calling Maria Butina a serious flight risk. Why is that?

JOHNSON: Yeah. In fact, prosecutors here in Washington, D.C., are telling the judge that Maria routinely poses a serious or extreme risk of flight because of the nature of charges against her - the notion that she's accused of acting as a foreign agent of Russia inside the U.S. and her history of deceptive conduct. Remember. Authorities are arguing that this woman Maria Butina entered the U.S. in 2016 on a student visa to study international relations here at American University. But they say, in fact, that was a cover story for her work to act on behalf of Russia to steer influential American politicians and policymakers toward Russian interests - a lot of other new details in this court filing that's just come out.

KING: What are some of those details?



JOHNSON: So there are new correspondence between Maria Butina and a guy described in essence as her handler back in Russia, a guy named Alexander Torshin. She worked for Torshin. He was a member of the legislature in Russia and a member of the central bank. He was sanctioned earlier this year by the U.S. Treasury Department for trying to subvert democracy and interfere with American politics. In fact, there is some correspondence that suggest Butina was given directions from Torshin about people to meet and plans to make here in D.C. and reporting back to him on her findings. They also report - prosecutors do - that they believe that Butina was in touch with other people with ties to the Russian FSB, the successor of the KGB, during her stay in Washington.

KING: Wow. So they have a lot on her - or they appear to. Maria Butina is due in court this afternoon. What do you expect to happen?

JOHNSON: So her lawyer Robert Driscoll has argued she is not a flight risk. He says these charges are overblown. And he's going to try to prevent the government from keeping Maria Butina detained pending a trial, which is what federal prosecutors are asking the judge to do today. He's arguing that, yes, maybe the FBI over the weekend observed her at a U-Haul rental facility and observed some moving boxes, but there's an innocent explanation for this - that she was moving in with her boyfriend in South Dakota and not trying to flee the United States.

There's a problem with that though. The Justice Department in the FBI say, in this new court filing, that they found electronic evidence of her complaining about her satisfaction with this guy described as her boyfriend. And they say that they have some evidence that she offered an individual, other than her boyfriend, sex in exchange for a position with a special interest group. So a lot of back-and-forth expected to come later today about what Maria was doing - Maria Butina was doing here in the U.S. and why and for Russia.

KING: NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.