In a remarkable and disturbing concession, the Justice Department last week admitted that it actually has no evidence that accused Russian operative, Maria Butina, was trading sex for jobs or access. Prosecutors now say that they simply had mistaken joking texts for real offers of sex quid pro quos. If there was not ample leeway given prosecutors under defamation law, this would seem like libel due to a lack of sense of humor . . . or worse. Update: The Court has imposed a gag order on counsel.
For weeks, prosecutors made sure to fuel stories of an attractive Russian spy ensnaring older men with sexual favor. Now, the Justice Department admitted in a court filing that that they had been “mistaken” in interpreting what joking emails as serious offers.
Butina’s lawyers have been lashing out against the Justice Department for spreading a sexist “honeypot” narrative.
The mistake by the Justice Department is concerning because it is hard to see how even the absence of scintilla of a sense of humor would lead to the earlier conclusion. It was based on a joking exchange with a longtime friend who has taken Butina’s car in Russia to get her insurance renewed. He wrote her “I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance[.] They put me through the wringer.” She jokingly responded “Sex. Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name.”
She later wrote “Ask for anything,” adding: “That they hire you?” to which her friend responded “Think of something!! Sex with you does not interest me.”
No one would reasonably or mistakingly read that exchange as a serious offer of sex for anything. However, statements in court come with privilege protections in torts. Moreover, the Justice Department makes it exceedingly difficult to force the disclosure of internal deliberations under other claimed privileges. The result is a lack of real deterrent against prosecutors using filings to destroy reputations as part of the pressure against targets.
The chilling element of this story is how the Justice Department can — and has — gone out of its way to destroy people in the media. Richard Jewell and others can attest to that history. Yet, there is no indication of any discipline or sanction for this gratuitous attack.