WASHINGTON - The chief executive of the e-commerce firm Overstock.com has stepped down over his relationship with an alleged Russian intelligence operative jailed for meddling in U.S. politics.
Patrick Byrne only recently admitted that he had a close relationship with Maria Butina for three years, during the period when she beguiled top Republican and National Rifle Association officials with talk of strengthening Moscow-Washington relations and her flair with guns.
He said in an eccentric company statement last week that he had been pulled into the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by the “deep state" and "men in black," charging that the FBI probe was "political espionage" more than law enforcement.
On Thursday he resigned, saying he had become "already far too controversial" to run the company and that he did "not wish to disrupt possible strategic discussions" about its future.
"The news that I shared is bubbling (however haphazardly) into the public," he said.
"Though patriotic Americans are writing me in support, my presence may affect and complicate all manner of business relationships, from insurability to strategic discussions regarding our retail business."
'Romantic' ties to Byrne
Butina is serving 18 months in jail after becoming the only Russian arrested and convicted in the sprawling three-year investigation into Russian election meddling.
With the backing of a Kremlin powerbroker, she parried her supposed grass-roots Russian gun rights group into a bridge into U.S. conservative politics, drawing the attention of U.S. counterintelligence though she had no direct links to Moscow's main spy agencies.
She appears to have had what her lawyer termed a "romantic" relationship with Byrne at the same time she lived with her boyfriend, a Republican operative, in Washington while attending graduate school at American University.
Byrne has said he cooperated with the FBI investigations, but has not made public the details of that or of his relationship with Butina.
His resignation came as Overstock.com, which sells furniture online, endures mounting losses as total revenue rose last year to $1.8 billion.
The company's shares plunged on Aug. 12 after he confirmed press reports of his involvement with Butina and his entanglement in the FBI Russia probe.
Byrne had reportedly been searching for a buyer for the retail business while he focused on a blockchain venture, which he discussed at length in his resignation letter Thursday.
The company said Thursday that Overstock veteran Jonathan Johnson would become interim chief executive.