A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted a Russian woman on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and one count of illegally working as an agent of a foreign government in connection with a secret scheme to influence American politics in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Maria Butina, a gun rights advocate with close ties to the National Rifle Association, was arrested Sunday on a charge of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government inside the United States without notifying the attorney general, as required by law. The second charge was added in the indictment announced Tuesday.
Butina, 29, is accused of secretly working to develop personal relationships with influential Americans and infiltrate political organizations, such as the NRA, for the purpose of advancing Russian interests in the United States.
Russia's foreign ministry, calling the allegations against Butina "groundless, said her detention was carried out minimize the impact of the recent summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.
According to the indictment, Butina carried out the scheme at the direction of a top Russian government official. The affidavit doesn’t name the Russian official she worked for, but its descriptions match that of Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of the Russian central bank and a former senator in Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.
Butina and Torshin founded The Right to Bear Arms, a pro-gun advocacy organization modeled on the NRA, in 2012. Torshin became a lifetime member of the NRA, and the duo regularly attended the gun lobby's annual meetings in the U.S. in recent years, according to their social media accounts.
U.S. prosecutors allege that Butina, a graduate of American University in Washington, sought to cultivate close ties with the NRA as a conduit to the Republican Party during the 2016 presidential election. The goal was to sway what the Russians saw — according to an email from Butina that was intercepted by the FBI and cited in the indictment — as the Republican Party's "negative and aggressive" policy toward Russia.
Butina made her first appearance before a federal magistrate on Monday and was ordered held, pending a bond hearing on Wednesday.
Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement on Monday, Driscoll denied the allegations against his client.
The indictment alleges she entered the U.S. in August 2016 on an F-1 student visa. It says she claimed to have previously worked as an assistant to the unnamed top Russian official, but that her employment had ended.
"Despite her attestation, Butina continued to act under the direction and control of the Russian official for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation after she entered the United States," the indictment says.
Butina was charged under a law that is "generally understood to be a counterespionage statute rather than a disclosure requirement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act," said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a partner at the law firm of Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock in Washington.
The offense carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.