Russian billionaire reportedly backed alleged agent
WASHINGTON — Maria Butina, the Russian woman charged in federal court last week with acting as an unregistered agent of her government, received financial support from Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian billionaire, according to a person familiar with testimony she gave Senate investigators.
Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that Nikolaev provided funding for a gun rights group she represented, according to the person.
Nikolaev has investments in US energy and technology companies. Butina is accused of attempts to infiltrate conservative groups in the United States, including the National Rifle Association.
A spokesman for Nikolaev confirmed that he was in contact with her as she was launching the gun rights group in Russia between 2012 and 2014. He declined to confirm whether Nikolaev gave her financial support.
Nikolaev’s fortune has been built largely through port and railroad investments in Russia. He also sits on the board of American Ethane, a Houston ethane company that was showcased by President Trump at an event in China last year, and is an investor in a Silicon Valley start-up.
Nikolaev has never met Trump, according to his spokesman.
However, Nikolaev’s son Andrey, who is studying in the United States, volunteered in the 2016 campaign in support of Trump’s candidacy, according a person familiar with his activities. Konstantin Nikolaev was spotted at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, during Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, according to two people familiar with his presence.
In a court filing last week, prosecutors said Butina’s e-mails and chat logs are full of references to a billionaire as the ‘‘funder’’ of her activities. They wrote that the billionaire is a ‘‘known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.’’
Prosecutors did not identify Butina’s funder by name but said he travels often to the United States and was listed by Forbes this year as having a net worth of $1.2 billion — which is the same as Nikolaev’s current listing.
Butina was ordered held without bond this week after she was charged with conspiring to work as a Russian agent. Prosecutors allege that she sought to meet GOP politicians and infiltrate the conservative organizations at the direction of a Russian government official, in an attempt to advance the Kremlin’s interests.
According to prosecutors, for two years, she traveled back and forth to the United States, often accompanying Russian central banker Alexander Torshin to NRA events and other political meetings. Prosecutors have said that her activities were directed by a high-level Russian government official who matches the description of Torshin.
In August 2016, she came to Washington to study full time as a graduate student at American University.
Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, has said she is not a Russian agent but rather a student interested in learning about the American political system. The Russian government has proclaimed Butina’s innocence.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pressed Butina’s case with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call Saturday, according to a statement by the Russian government.
Driscoll declined to comment on Nikolaev but said that the Russian businessman cited by prosecutors was a financial supporter of the gun-rights group Butina founded in Russia, the Right to Bear Arms. She met him in person only twice, he said.
Prosecutors cited Butina’s interactions with the Russian billionaire to argue she should not be allowed out of jail while awaiting trial. They argued that she has ‘‘ties to the Russian oligarchy’’ and knows wealthy men who could be in a position to offer her ‘‘safe harbor’’ if she decided to flee.
Nikolaev last had contact with the Russian activist in 2014, according to his spokesman, who said that at the time, Butina had a ‘‘public profile in Russia as a blogger on key domestic issues that were of interest.’’
Nikolaev’s connections to the Russian government ‘‘cannot be characterized as deep,’’ his spokesman said.
‘‘Mr. Nikolaev has no connections to the Russian government other than those that are strictly required professionally,’’ said the spokesman, who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
He declined to offer details about the political volunteer work by Nikolaev’s son, Andrey.