An alleged Russian spy, a mysterious South Dakota company and an attempt to “infiltrate” political organizations to advance the interests of Russia. Authorities arrested Maria Butina on Sunday on a charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government, according to court papers unsealed in Washington. The U.S. Justice Department says she worked under the direction of a high-level Russian government official. She is being held without bond and faces a charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government.
Butina made a few stops in South Dakota while she was on a national speaking tour three years ago, and has ties to South Dakotans. Two people who met her have mixed reactions to these allegations. One of them is running for South Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat. The other is a student at the University of South Dakota.
A photo shows when Butina met with USD students in 2015. One of the students was Jenna Hayes. Hayes, now a grad student, spoke with KELOLAND News from the passenger seat about Butina’s arrest.
“I was absolutely shocked to see her name on the news with the allegations,” Hayes said.
Hayes says Butina was at USD to promote better relations between the U.S. and Russia.
“I loved her. She was so delightful,” Hayes said.
That’s not all. Butina also spoke about gun rights in Russia. In court papers, an FBI agent believes Butina’s goal was to build ties and infiltrate U.S. political organizations and an unnamed gun rights organization.
“She did mention always, I think, being impressed by the NRA,” Hayes said.
Butina also spoke at the South Dakota Teen Republicans Camp in 2015, hosted by Dusty Johnson, who is now running for Congress. Facebook users dug up a tweet he made in 2015 following her speech. In it, he calls Butina “incredible”. One user asked Johnson if he was “duped by a Russian.”
“She talked about how terrible it was to live under the tyranny of Russia. When she contacted us, wanting to know if we wanted that kind of pro liberty content, we were interested. I’m pretty angry she’s instead a scam artist and liar,” Johnson said.
In addition to commenting on Butina, Johnson is taking a hard stance against the Russian government.
“Russia is not our friend. This is a government that meddled in our elections, they have meddled in our social media and they have clearly been trying to send speakers to connect with Americans and American students in particular. Russia is not our friend. We need to be very skeptical and very suspicious of the Russian government,” Johnson said.
Johnson says he hasn’t had any contact with her since the speech. As for Hayes, she thinks Butina is innocent.
“I don’t think she’s a spy or guilty of any devious behavior,” Hayes said.
Butina’s attorney did release a statement, and is denying she was “an agent of the Russian Federation.” Butina is scheduled to be back in court on Wednesday for a preliminary hearing. We will let you know if any updates come out of that hearing.