US prosecutors backtracks on Russian spy suspect offering sex for access
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 US 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.