WASHINGTON -- A Russian woman has pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent in a case that the U.S. government said highlighted Moscow's efforts to influence Washington's foreign policy.
Maria Butina, who had earlier denied the charge, entered the new plea in a U.S. federal court in Washington on December 13, and also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Butina "sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics," according to the plea agreement read out loud by prosecutors in court.
Dressed in a green prison jumpsuit, wearing glasses and her hair pulled back in a braid, Butina spoke in English as she answered U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan's questions.
"Are you pleading guilty today because you are guilty?" Chutkan asked.
"Yes," Butina replied.
No sentencing date was set. However, Chutkan said Butina could face up to five years in prison, and a $250,000 fine. Chutkan also said it was not up to her whether Butina would be deported after she completes her sentence.
Prosecutors have alleged that Butina, who received a graduate degree from American University in Washington and who publicly advocated for gun rights, sought to build relationships with influential conservative political groups, including the powerful National Rifle Association.
In Russia, Butina had established a group that advocated for Russians to own firearms, something that is strictly proscribed under Russian law.
The charge of conspiracy opens the possibility that other people could also be charged in the case. Paul Erickson, an American man and conservative activist identified as Butina's boyfriend, is also under investigation.
Erickson's name appears nowhere in the court filings; the filings identify only a "U.S. Person 1." However, the descriptions given by prosecutors match up with Erickson’s background and past activities.
The plea that Butina agreed to details that she sought to cultivate relationships in the United States.
"Butina opined that the circumstances were favorable for building relations with a certain U.S. political party," it said. "Butina predicted that the candidate nominated by Political Party #1 would likely win the upcoming U.S. presidential election."
Prosecutors said Butina in March 2015 crafted something called the "Diplomacy Project" with help from "U.S. Person 1," and to carry out the plan, she requested $125,000 from a Russian billionaire to attend conferences and set up "separate meetings with interested parties."
Those parties included Russian businessmen or Foreign Ministry officials, they said.
Butina's lawyers have previously identified the Russian official with whom she worked closely as Aleksandr Torshin, a former Russian lawmaker who is deputy governor of Russia's Central Bank. He was hit with sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department in April.
Torshin has also been linked to Russian organized crime figures according to Spanish investigators who spent years tapping phones and monitoring Russians.
When Butina was first arrested on July 16, prosecutors leveled a series of salacious accusations, including that she had tried to seduce some of her contacts, as part of the effort to build back-channel communications and influence people.
Prosecutors later withdrew the accusations, saying they were based on a misreading of some of Butina's text messages and emails.
They also withdrew accusations that she had been in contact with Russian intelligence agents.
Her defense lawyers had argued that the portrayal made by prosecutors was an exaggerated caricature. They said that her efforts to build friendships and contacts with U.S. political figures were genuine.
The case against Butina was brought by federal prosecutors in Washington, not by the better-known effort led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Russian officials have strenuously defended Butina, asserting that the U.S. case was exaggerated or outright false.
Earlier this week, after court filings indicated Butina was about to change her plea, Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned her in a Moscow meeting.
"She risks 15 years in jail. For what?" Putin asked rhetorically. "I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on. Nobody knows anything about her."