WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors are backtracking on their allegation 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 late Friday, prosecutors said they misinterpreted the messages. 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.
Butina, 29, was arrested in July and accused of gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations. Prosecutors say she used her contacts with the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast to develop relationships with U.S. politicians and gather information for Russia. They also say she used her role as a student at American University in Washington as a cover for her activities.
The case is being handled by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and not by special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been leading an investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Donald Trump's Republican presidential campaign as well as Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The filing came ahead of a status hearing in her case scheduled for Monday.
Butina's 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, "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 has pleaded not guilty to the charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia. Driscoll has denied that Butina is a Russian agent, calling the case "overblown." He has said his client was merely a student who wanted to see a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia and sought to network with influential people in American politics.
There was nothing covert about her work, Driscoll said, noting several news stories about her over the past several years.
The sexual allegation was only a small part of the evidence presented by prosecutors in arguing to jail Butina. Prosecutors largely argued that she posed an "extreme" flight risk and raised the prospect of her being swept out of the country by Russians using their diplomatic immunity to shield her from U.S. law enforcement. The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Russia.
Prosecutors have said her activities in the U.S. were being directed by a Russian official, identified by Driscoll as Alexander Torshin. He is a senior official in the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, a former lawmaker and a member of the NRA since 2012.
Prosecutors say Torshin was Butina's handler, but Driscoll has said he was only a friend and mentor with whom Butina traveled openly when he visited the U.S.
Torshin was also among a number of Russian businessmen and officials sanctioned this year by the U.S. Treasury Department for their ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and for their part in "advancing Russia's malign activities."
Prosecutors have said they also found evidence that Butina has had contact with Russian intelligence.
FBI agents photographed her dining with a diplomat suspected of being a Russian intelligence agent. They found she had contact information for people suspected of being employed by Russia's Federal Security Services, or FSB, the successor intelligence agency to the KGB. They also found notes in her home referring to a potential job offer from the FSB.
The notes were found among the belongings of her boyfriend, conservative political operative Paul Erickson, who is referred to as "U.S. Person 1" in court papers that allege he was Butina's channel for establishing ties with the NRA.
Prosecutors have questioned the authenticity of Butina's romantic relationship with Erickson, who is in his mid-50s. Driscoll has disputed the government's characterization of the relationship.
Driscoll said during a hearing this summer that Butina cooperated with a federal fraud investigation into Erickson in South Dakota.
Erickson has not been charged with any crimes.