By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge said on Wednesday she may consider imposing a gag order on lawyers for accused Russian agent Maria Butina after prosecutors complained about statements by her lead attorney to the news media and expressed concern about turning over evidence to the defence.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan gave the prosecution until Aug. 8 to file a proposed protection order to prevent the public disclosure of evidence in the case. During a hearing, prosecutors accused defence lawyer Robert Driscoll of misrepresenting the case in television news interviews.
"I certainly don't want to impose a gag order," Chutkan said at a hearing, but added that she would consider the step if Driscoll's public statements about the case "cross the line."
"I'm cautioning you," the judge told Driscoll.
Butina, 29, was arrested and indicted this month on charges that she conspired with a top Russian official and two American citizens to try to infiltrate a pro-gun rights group, believed to be the National Rifle Association, and to influence U.S. policy toward Russia. She has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutor Thomas Saunders said the government cannot give Butina's defence team "free rein" over more than 1.5 million files seized by the FBI as part of its investigation until her lawyers agree not to release it to the media.
"Our concerns are about protecting the integrity of potential ongoing investigations," Saunders said, adding that it is not just about this matter, but also "potential other cases."
Prosecutors said Driscoll's statements on TV violated the court's rules prohibiting lawyers from opining on cases in ways that could hurt a person's right to a fair trial.
Chutkan said she and defence lawyers would review the prosecution's proposed protection order.
A magistrate judge last week ordered Butina jailed without bail pending trial after prosecutors presented evidence suggesting she had connections to Russian intelligence operatives and was being funded by Russian oligarchs.
Russia has labelled the case against Butina "fabricated" and called for her release.
The prosecution told Chutkan that Driscoll had refused to agree to several drafts of a proposed protective order. Driscoll said he is willing to agree not to share the information with the press, but had some additional concerns about the government's draft orders.
Driscoll called his television appearances "an eye dropper in a tsunami" of negative press coverage toward Butina, specifically complaining about prosecution accusations that she had offered sex in exchange for a job in a special-interest organisation.
Driscoll also said he plans to challenge Butina's detention and possibly file a motion to dismiss the case.
The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 10.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham)