WASHINGTON | Maria Butina, a Russian who admitted to secretly working for the Kremlin to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups with the help of a South Dakota boyfriend, was sentenced Friday to 18 months in prison.
Butina has been jailed since her July 2018 arrest and had asked for a sentence of time served. But U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan imposed a sentence that would require Butina to spend an additional nine months behind bars, before being deported.
Chutkan said the sentence was meant "to reflect the seriousness of (Butina's actions) and to promote deterrence."
Butina's lawyers decried the judgment as overly harsh; they had characterized Butina as a naive but ambitious international affairs student who simply didn't realize her actions required her to register as an agent of a foreign government.
"I feel terrible for Maria's family ... I wish we could have done more to get her out sooner," said attorney Robert Driscoll. "I do not believe an additional nine months in jail serves any purpose."
Butina admitted last year to covertly gathering intelligence on the National Rifle Association and other groups at the direction of a former Russian lawmaker. She was allegedly assisted by her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, 57, of Sioux Falls.
Erickson has not been criminally charged for the assistance he provided to Butina, but he is facing a separate federal prosecution for wire fraud and money laundering in South Dakota, where he is scheduled to stand trial in July. Prosecutors in that case have alleged that he used some of the money he fraudulently obtained from business investors to pay some of Butina's expenses, including her tuition at American University in Washington, D.C.
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Butina's guilty plea to a single charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent came as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.
According to her plea agreement, the 30-year-old worked with former Russian lawmaker Alexander Torshin to use their contacts in the NRA to pursue back channels to American conservatives during the 2016 presidential campaign. All the while, she did not report her activities to the U.S. government as required by law.
In court papers filed ahead of Friday's sentencing, Butina's lawyers argued that she has taken responsibility for her crimes and should be credited for her cooperation with prosecutors, which they described as "full, transparent and complete."
They said Butina has suffered by being publicly branded as a "spy" and through her months in jail.
But prosecutors, in pushing for an 18-month sentence, said that while Butina wasn't carrying out espionage in the "traditional sense," her actions still posed a risk.
"Such operations can cause great damage to our national security by giving covert agents access to our country and powerful individuals who can influence its direction," prosecutors wrote.
Butina had faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Her case is unrelated to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which concluded last month.