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Maria Butina, Convicted Russian Operative, Is Released From Federal Prison

Maria Butina, seen in this courtroom sketch, stands beside her attorney Robert Driscoll during a court hearing late last year in Washington, D.C. The Russian woman has been released from prison after serving a sentence for conspiracy.
Dana Verkouteren

Maria Butina's prison term has ended.

The Russian national, who pleaded guilty late last year to conspiring to act as a clandestine foreign agent, was released Friday into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now she's expected to be deported quickly back to Russia.

Her release closes a fraught chapter for Butina, who for months occupied a spotlight in the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Prosecutors accused Butina of scheming to forge a connection between Moscow and the Trump administration, as well as several heavy hitters in the conservative political community — including officials at the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast.

Last December, Butina admittedfailing to register as a Russian agent with the Justice Department, a crime that carried the possibility of up to five years in prison. Instead of that term, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan in April sentenced her to 18 months, with credit for time already served.

Just a couple of weeks after the judge's order, Butina spoke on the phone w ith NPR while she was still in detention awaiting transfer to the low-security federal prison in Tallahassee, Fla., where she would serve the rest of her time. In that conversation, she maintained that all she had been doing was "building peace" between the U.S. and Russia.

"It wouldn't be appropriate to say that this was all one grand giant plan and I'm a part of some grand giant plan," she said at the time. "There is no proof of that. And I have no knowledge that there is a certain plan."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has repeatedly slammed the allegations against Butina as a sham, labeling her sentence an "outrage."

Unsurprisingly, federal investigators had a different take.

They alleged that the professed firearms enthusiast worked with sanctionedRussian businessman Alexander Torshin and Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB, to cultivate connections with conservative political leaders in the U.S. Butina and Torshin ultimately obtained such extensive access to the NRA that a Senate report recently found that the influential gun rights group had effectively become a "foreign asset" during the 2016 election cycle.

Butina's efforts appeared to be separate from Russia's election interference campaign detailed by former special counsel Robert Mueller, who left her name out of the final version of his probe's redacted report.

She was not the only figure implicated in these alleged schemes to face legal jeopardy. Paul Erickson, the longtime Republican fundraiser whom Butina had been dating at the time, has found himself in hot water for a different reason: He pleaded not guilty earlier this year to charges that he defrauded health care investors in South Dakota.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.