(WASHINGTON) — Federal prosecutors concede they misinterpreted text messages when they alleged that a Russian woman accused of working as a secret agent offered to trade sex for access, according to a Justice Department court filing.
Prosecutors had earlier accused Maria Butina, a gun rights activist in U.S. custody on charges she worked as a covert agent and tried to establish back-channel lines of communication to the Kremlin, of offering to exchange sex for a position with a special interest organization. The salacious allegation, which immediately escalated the public interest in the case, was based on a series of text messages to and from Butina and other information that prosecutors say they had obtained.
But in a new court filing this weekend, prosecutors backtracked on the allegation. They said “even granting that the government’s understanding of this particular text conversation was mistaken,” there is other evidence to support keeping Butina in custody as the case against her moves forward in Washington.
Her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, had strongly denied the accusation and said the government had relied on an “innocuous” 3-year-old text message exchange between Butina and a longtime friend, assistant and public relations professional for a gun rights group that she had founded.
The individual, identified in court papers only as DK, had said in the text that he didn’t know what Butina would owe him after he took her car for an insurance renewal and government inspection. She replied in part, “Sex. Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name.”
In a court filing last month, Driscoll said that the sex comment was clearly a joke and that Butina is friends with DK’s wife and child and treats him like a brother. He said there is no evidence that the two ever had sex.
“The impact of this inflammatory allegation, which painted Ms. Butina as some type of Kremlin-trained seductress, or spy-novel honeypot character, trading sex for access and power, cannot be overstated,” Driscoll said.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, Driscoll said, “I’m happy the government walked back their false allegation.”
Butina was arrested in July, accused of gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and use contacts with the National Rifle Association to develop relationships with U.S. politicians and gather intelligence for Russia.
A status conference in the case is scheduled for Monday in federal court in Washington. The case is being handled by the U.S. attorney’s office and not by special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been leading an investigation into possible coordination between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign as well as Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.