The woman charged with spying for Moscow in the US met previously with the former Russian ambassador to Washington whose contacts with Trump advisers have raised concerns among investigators.
Photographs of Maria Butina with Sergey Kislyak were among the files taken from Butina’s electronic devices by FBI agents, according to prosecutors. The date of the photographs was not specified.
Erik Kenerson, the assistant US attorney, has cited Butina’s encounter with Kislyak as proof that she was in touch with diplomatic or consular officials and must be detained while awaiting trial.
“If Ms Butina decides to go to any sort of embassy, diplomatic mission, gets put in a diplomatic car that has been so registered with the department of state, there is nothing at that point anyone in law enforcement can do to get her,” Kenerson told a court in Washington on Wednesday.
Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, tried to play down the significance of the meeting, which he said took place at “a movie screening hosted by a Russian cultural group in Washington”. He suggested Kislyak, whose US posting officially ended in August last year, had already stepped down as ambassador.
Judge Deborah Robinson agreed with prosecutors and ruled on Wednesday that Butina be jailed pending trial. The charges against the 29-year-old carry maximum prison sentences totaling 15 years. Butina denies any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors also disclosed in court that Butina had offered to cooperate with a federal fraud investigation into her 56-year-old American boyfriend, Paul Erickson, a Republican operative based in South Dakota. Erickson did not respond to calls.
The possibility that Kislyak played a role in Russia’s interference in US politics has been examined by the special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees, after it emerged that the envoy had contact with several senior Trump aides.
Michael Flynn resigned as Trump’s national security adviser in February last year after it was revealed that he discussed economic sanctions with Kislyak shortly before Trump’s inauguration. The following month, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, recused himself from justice department inquiries into Russia after admitting he had failed to disclose two meetings with Kislyak during 2016.
In May last year it was reported that Kislyak had been heard by US spies telling Moscow that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, had proposed setting up a back channel for private conversations between Russian officials and Trump’s team during the final weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency.
US authorities allege that Butina worked to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA) as part of an operation to influence the Republican party and set up secret communications with American politicians. They have pointed to emails and other electronic messages in which Butina allegedly described her efforts in detail.
In court on Wednesday, prosecutors said another file had been found that laid out what was described as the “groundwork” for the alleged influence campaign by Butina and a senior Russian government official accused of being her handler. The official was not identified but appears to be Alexander Torshin, a state banker.
“During the last five years, [Torshin] and Butina have constantly worked on a establishing unofficial contact based on common views and a system of conservative values with a number of key political party organisations,” Kenerson said the document stated.
The document was said to have been found on a thumb drive at the home of the boyfriend who appears to be Erickson. Prosecutors say Butina was using Erickson to gain access to conservative politics and offered sex to another person in return for a role at an activist group.
Driscoll, Butina’s attorney, revealed to court that one of the search warrants used by FBI agents to search her home in April related to a criminal fraud investigation in South Dakota into her boyfriend.
“We called the South Dakota US attorney and we said: ‘Let’s go in and explain everything you have questions about’,” said Driscoll, who filed to court a 29 May letter to Butina from the prosecutor. Robinson, the judge, noted that the letter said Butina had offered to assist inquiries into “the illegal activities of others”.
Kenerson on Wednesday also said more about the role of an unidentified wealthy Russian businessman in Butina’s alleged activities. Kenerson said that during a text exchange about US visas, the businessman told her in December 2014: “I want you to go work with the US, not go on a tourist trip.”