Tanya S. Chutkan, during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, to be U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia on Feb. 25, 2014. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL

A federal judge in Washington barred the defense team for an accused Russian agent from making further comments to the media, citing concerns that public statements made outside the courtroom would make it more difficult to seat a jury.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Monday said the defense lawyer, Robert Driscoll, had “overstepped” and “crossed the line” with his comments to the media, two months after she had cautioned him against trying Maria Butina’s case in the press.

But the government shared some of the blame for Driscoll’s comments, Chutkan said, acknowledging that the defense lawyer was driven to rebut the prosecution’s claim that Butina had offered sex in exchange for a job at a special-interest organization.

In a court filing late Friday, prosecutors walked back that claim, saying they had misunderstood messages that the government has since cited in arguing that Butina should be detained while she awaits trial.

Chutkan said she was “dismayed” by the government’s error but told prosecutors, “I credit you for publicly taking back those allegations.” She said it had taken her five minutes to review the messages and see that Butina’s statements were jokes.

“It was apparent on their face,” Chutkan said.

Butina’s defense lawyers have resisted the argument that they violated any court rules in their comments to news reporters. They defended their effort “to occasionally push back against the overwhelming onslaught of negative stories.” The case against Butina, the defense argued, has “received saturation coverage having nothing to do with statements of counsel.”

Butina is charged in Washington federal district court with conspiring against the U.S. as an undisclosed Russian agent. Prosecutors contend Butina worked at the direction of high-level Russian officials to infiltrate organizations involved in U.S. politics. She has pleaded not guilty.

“She is not a spy. She is not working on behalf of the Russian Federation or some Kremlin intelligence operation. She is not a Russian agent,” Butina’s lawyers told the court last week.

Chutkan rejected Butina’s renewed bid to be released pending trial. Chutkan envisioned Butina being released and then “placed into a car with diplomatic tags,” then whisked to an airport for a Russia-bound flight. Even high-intensity supervision, she said, “will not stop that.”

“There’s a very real risk of flight,” Chutkan said.

 

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