The retraction of the most salacious element of the Justice Department’s case against the 29-year-old was buried in page 19 of a late Friday night court filing.
In it, prosecutors said their allegation that Butina offered sex in exchange for a position with a special interest organization was “mistaken,” and based on a misinterpretation of a text message exchange between Butina and an unidentified man.
In the text exchange in question, the man asked Butina what she would owe him after he took her car for an insurance renewal and government inspection.
“Sex,” she replied. “Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name.”
Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll had said in a court filing in August that the sex comment was clearly a joke, and that Butina was friends with the individual’s wife and child.
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On Sunday, he said he was happy the government walked back their allegation, but said the damage had already been done.
“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,” he said.
But prosecutors maintained that while their sex-for-influence allegation was mistaken, there was enough other evidence to support keeping Butina in custody while she awaits trial on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent for Russia.
The sex allegation was only a small part of the case 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.
Butina 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.
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U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan agreed that Butina remained a flight risk, and rejected her request to be released on bail and put under house arrest.
But she reserved choice words for prosecutors, expressing disbelief that it wasn’t immediately obvious to them that Butina’s text messages were a joke rather than a serious proffer of sex.
“It took me five minutes to review the evidence and tell they were joking. It was apparent on their face,” Chutkan said according to the Washington Post. She also said she was “dismayed” by the mistake and by the “rather salacious allegations” bandied about by prosecutors.
She also imposed a gag order on lawyers involved in the case.
The Russian Embassy in Canada used the prosecutors’ gaffe to lash out at the U.S. justice system.
“Maria #Butina is in high security jail like serious criminal w/ torture-like treatment because prosecution misinterpreted her words!” read a post on the embassy’s official Twitter account. “Lost in translation & locked. Typical modern McCarthyism #HumanRightsViolations watchdogs dead silent.”
— With files from the Associated Press