In a series of revelations over the past week, the CEO of Overstock.com has claimed that he had a sexual relationship with convicted Russian agent Maria Butina, and that the FBI encouraged him to continue such a relationship.
One of Butina’s lawyers, Robert Driscoll, revealed in a letter to the Justice Department last month that the 57-year-old Byrne maintained a relationship with Butina.
Byrne said that he initially met Butina at the 2015 FreedomFest, an annual libertarian convention. He said Butina claimed she was working for Alexander Torshin, who was then working as an official at the Russian Central Bank. Torshin, who has been accused by authorities in Europe of overseeing massive money laundering operations, is now sanctioned by the U.S. for his role in Russia’s kleptocratic regime.
Byrne added that Butina claimed she was working at Torshin’s behest in order to build up contacts in the administration of whoever won the 2016 election, saying she wanted to allow Russian liberals a platform within the new White House. It’s unclear which Russian liberals Butina would have been describing: Not only was Torshin firmly in the pro-government camp in Russia, but Butina has previously been one of the most outspoken figures supporting Russia’s attempts to disintegrate Ukraine, including promoting the arming of pro-Kremlin separatists in Ukraine.
As ThinkProgress has reported, at least one other sanctioned Russian, Alexander Malkevich, is currently involved in fundraising on Butina’s behalf.
Byrne says he developed an intimate relationship with Butina through early 2016, after which it was broken off. Driscoll’s letter noted that Byrne said he had a “non-standard arrangement” with the FBI, and that he “communicated and assisted government agents with their investigation of Maria.” The letter notes that American officials instructed Byrne to restart his relationship with Butina in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
As the letter read:
At some point prior to the 2016 election, when Byrne’s contact with Maria diminished or ceased, the government asked and encouraged him to renew contact with her and he did so, continuing to inform the government of her activities. Byrne states he was informed by government agents that his pursuit and involvement with Maria (and concomitant surveillance of her) was requested and directed from the highest levels of the FBI and intelligence community.
Byrne later denied that this second portion of his relationship with Butina was intimate. “The second period, I did it because I was instructed to rekindle it. However, I decided that was not the right thing to do,” Byrne told the Washington Examiner. “But I was told where the orders came from, and the orders came from high enough that I accepted the orders. I just want America to know that I didn’t lay a finger on her that second time.”
Driscoll’s letter noted that Byrne claimed Butina’s “behavior and interaction with him was inconsistent with her being a foreign agent and more likely an idealist and age-appropriate peace activist.” The letter added that Byrne “conveyed [Byrne’s] thoughts and the corroborating facts and observations about Maria to the government.”
This is the first time Byrne’s name has been linked with Butina. Byrne said that he met with Justice Department officials earlier this year, but his relationship with Butina never came up during Butina’s prosecution. It is also the second known romantic relationship Butina carried out in the U.S. The other was with another 57-year-old, GOP operative Paul Erickson, who was charged earlier this year with wire fraud.
“I have been involved with three peace efforts in my life, and stranger things have happened than that someone positive came from such an encounter,” Byrne said. “However, I was also keenly aware that she might be a Red Sparrow instead.”