Accused covert Russian agent Maria Butina hopes to gain something from cooperating with an investigation into someone else in South Dakota, according to a letter from the South Dakota U.S. attorney’s office to her lawyer.
“While your client hopes to receive some benefit by cooperating with the government,” the letter says, “she expressly understands that the government is making no promise of any kind at this time.”
The Rapid City Journal obtained a copy of the letter Tuesday from the law firm of Butina’s attorney. The letter is dated May 29, and it consists of a proposed proffer agreement from U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Ron Parsons Jr. and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Clapper.
A proffer agreement allows a person to give information to prosecutors subject to ground rules established in advance. A proposed ground rule in the letter to Butina’s attorney says, “No statements made by your client or other information provided by her during proffer will be used directly against her in any criminal proceeding.”
A proffer agreement is not a plea bargain or a promise of immunity, but it can lead to them.
The letter says it was sent “in the hope” that Butina “may be willing to make a proffer of possible information and testimony regarding her knowledge of the illegal activities of others.” The “others” are not named in the letter, but widespread media speculation has focused on Paul Erickson, a 56-year-old Sioux Falls man with connections to Butina.
The letter concludes with blank lines for Butina and her attorney to sign in acceptance of the proffer agreement. Court records do not reveal whether they signed the document. Neither Butina's attorney nor the U.S. attorney's office in South Dakota immediately responded to Journal messages asking whether the agreement was signed.
The potential proffer agreement is limited to the South Dakota matter, in which Butina is not a subject, according to statements made by a prosecutor at a July 18 hearing on the federal criminal charges against Butina in Washington, D.C. Butina, a 29-year-old Russian national, was arrested July 15 and has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent without prior notification to the U.S. attorney general.
Butina's potential cooperation in a South Dakota investigation, and the existence of that investigation, were revealed at Butina’s July 18 hearing by her attorney, Bob Driscoll. He referenced the letter from the South Dakota U.S. attorney’s office while arguing, unsuccessfully, for Butina’s pretrial release from custody. Her potential cooperation with the investigation in South Dakota was one of several factors Driscoll cited while attempting to convince a judge that Butina was not a flight risk.
Driscoll entered the letter as an exhibit at the hearing, but the letter did not become part of the public court file and was not in the possession of the court clerk, according to responses by the clerk’s office to the Journal’s requests for the document. The Journal obtained the letter only after repeated requests to Driscoll and others at the D.C. office of the McGlinchey Stafford law firm of which Driscoll is a member.
During the July 18 hearing, Driscoll not only revealed the existence of the letter but also said, according to the hearing transcript, that one of two warrants used by the FBI to search Butina’s Washington, D.C., apartment on April 25 was “related to matters in South Dakota.”
“And we called the South Dakota U.S. attorney and we said: ‘Let’s go in and explain everything you have questions about,'" Driscoll said, according to the transcript.
Later during the July 18 hearing, a prosecutor for the federal government, Erik Kenerson, revealed more details about the investigation in South Dakota by calling it a “fraud investigation” that is “directed at U.S. Person 1,” according to the transcript.
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U.S. Person 1 is referenced numerous times in court documents filed in Butina’s criminal case. In those documents, prosecutors wrote that U.S. Person 1 helped Butina choose a student visa as her cover for entering and staying in the United States, and that U.S. Person 1 did some collegiate coursework for Butina while cohabiting with her and providing access to a network of Americans in positions to influence political activities.
U.S. Person 1 has not been publicly identified, and a spokesman for the District of Columbia US. attorney’s office told the Journal that the office typically does not name uncharged people in court filings.
But some of those filings from the prosecution have described U.S. Person 1 as an American political operative who is 56 years old. Both of those descriptions apply to Erickson, who formed a South Dakota corporation called Bridges LLC with Butina in 2016, according to public records on file with the South Dakota Secretary of State's Office. The McClatchy DC Bureau reported in January that Erickson said the LLC was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies.
During Butina’s July 18 court hearing, her attorney, Driscoll, said she has a “boyfriend” in South Dakota, and said she had been planning to relocate to South Dakota to move in with that boyfriend. Erickson is known to have an apartment and an office in Sioux Falls.
Erickson spoke to the Journal for a profile about him published in February, but he has not responded to recent phone and email messages.
Beyond the references to U.S. Person 1 in written court documents, further details about U.S. Person 1 dribbled out during Butina’s July 18 hearing, according to the transcript.
Kenerson said during the hearing that a thumb drive had been recovered at U.S. Person 1’s residence, and the thumb drive contained a report within a folder that bore Butina’s first name. The report, Kenerson said, regarded the groundwork that Butina and Russian officials conducted to influence high-level politicians.
Kenerson also made mention during the hearing of a page of notes found in U.S. Person 1’s effects, bearing text that Kenerson said is consistent with U.S. Person 1’s handwriting. Kenerson entered the page of notes as an exhibit, and the Journal later obtained the exhibit from Kenerson’s office.
The title atop the page is “Notes on Maria’s Russian Patriots-in-Waiting organization,” followed by a bulleted list. During the July 18 hearing, Kenerson, who argued successfully to keep Butina in custody as she awaits trial, highlighted one note in the list that says, “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?”. Kenerson said during the hearing that the FSB — the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation — is the successor organization to the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency.
The criminal charges against Butina are based on allegations that she coordinated with government officials in Russia to infiltrate and influence American politics. Although Butina is being prosecuted by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia rather than special counsel Robert Mueller, the July 16 announcement of her arrest came just hours after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and just days after Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials with directing a hacking effort aimed at swaying the 2016 election.
Butina's attorney, Driscoll, said at the July 18 hearing that depictions of Butina as a spy are false and that the only alleged criminal activity he could detect in the government’s filings and arguments was a failure by Butina to register with the U.S. attorney general as a foreign agent.
“This is not a spying case,” Driscoll said, according to the hearing transcript. “This is a regulatory filing case.”
— Journal staff writer Chris Vondracek contributed to this report.