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  • Butina In this photo taken on Sunday, April 21, 2013, Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia. Butina, a 29-year-old gun-rights activist, served as a covert Russian agent while living in Washington, gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin, federal prosecutors charged Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo)

Monday, July 23, 2018 1:00 am

Wealthy Russian linked to spy case

Allegedly financed Butina's gun rights group

Rosalind S. Helderman | Washington Post

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 with investments in U.S. energy and technology companies, 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. 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 Donald 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, D.C., 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 emails 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 conservative organizations, including the National Rifle Association, 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, promoting the hashtag #freeMariaButina on social media.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei 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.