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Public figure Maria Butina (R) attends a meeting of a group of experts, affiliated to the government of Russia, in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on July 17, 2018. Press Service of Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS(reuters_tickers)
By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge on Wednesday ordered an accused Russian agent jailed until her trial after U.S. prosecutors argued she has ties to Russian intelligence and could flee the United States.
Prosecutors have not charged the agent they identified as Maria Butina with espionage, but said she had been in contact with Russian intelligence operatives and kept contact information for several Russian agents.
During a preliminary hearing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the lead prosecutor in the case showed a photo of Butina in a Washington restaurant meeting with someone whom they believe is a Russian intelligence agent.
The 29-year-old former American University graduate student wore an orange prison jumpsuit in court and showed no emotion as her lawyer entered a not-guilty plea. Butina's next court appearance was scheduled for July 24.
The government also displayed a copy of a handwritten note uncovered by the FBI at Butina's apartment asking how to respond to an employment offer from a Russian intelligence agency, as well as a photo of her standing in front of the U.S. Capitol on the day Donald Trump was sworn in as president 18 months ago.
"We do not believe she was here ... just to attend American University," said Erik Michael Kenerson, the lead prosecutor, adding that Butina was engaged in a "covert influence campaign."
The case coincides with an investigation by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller into whether members of Trump's 2016 election campaign coordinated with Russian officials. Butina's case, however, is being handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the National Security Division of the Justice Department.
Moscow denies U.S. allegations it interfered in the election and Trump denies any campaign collusion.
Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, said she is not a Russian agent and poses no flight risk. She was arrested on Sunday without warning.
In a statement to reporters after the hearing, Driscoll declared his client is innocent.
"While we respect the court, we strongly disagree that there were no conditions of release short of incarceration to detain an innocent student before trial," he said.
Butina has been accused of working with a high-powered Russian official and two unidentified U.S. citizens, trying to infiltrate a pro-gun rights organisation in the United States and influence the United States' foreign policy towards Russia.
The gun rights group was not identified. However, her social media accounts show she attended many National Rifle Association events and met with top officials of the lobbying group.
The unidentified Russian official appears to match the description of Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia's central bank who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April. The central bank has declined comment on the case.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said there were no grounds for Butina's arrest and that its embassy in Washington has requested a meeting with her.
Meanwhile, one of the two U.S. citizens, identified in court records as "U.S. Person 1," is facing a separate criminal fraud investigation by federal prosecutors in South Dakota, Kenerson said at Wednesday's hearing.
The description of "U.S. Person 1" in the hearing and in court records appear to match that of 56-year-old Paul Erickson, a conservative political activist who lives in South Dakota. He appears in photos with Butina on social media and started a corporation with Butina in 2016 called Bridges LLC.
In court filings, prosecutors said Butina viewed a relationship with the person as "simply a necessary aspect of her activities" and disdained living with him.
Driscoll referred to the South Dakota resident as Butina's boyfriend and said she had planned to move there to be with him, but then she was arrested.
He declined to comment on the separate fraud case, and Erickson has not returned several calls from Reuters for comment.
Driscoll repeatedly argued that Butina is not a flight risk and has cooperated with the government. Earlier this year, he said, she testified voluntarily about her activities during a non public hearing before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
He also revealed that she had received and responded to an inquiry by the Federal Election Commission in March 2018 concerning donations to a political campaign. He did not elaborate on the details.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Tim Ahmann; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)