Maria Butina’s oligarch ‘funder’ has been identified, and he has innocuous links to the Trump campaign

DCNFChuck Ross, DCNF

A Russian billionaire described in Justice Department documents as a “funder” for alleged Russian spy Maria Butina has been identified.

Butina told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during an interview in April that Konstantin Nikolaev, an energy investor, is the person she described as her financial backer in emails and Twitter exchanges with Alexander Torshin, the deputy head of Russia’s central bank, according to The Washington Post.

Nikolaev is a member of the board of American Ethane, a Houston-based energy company. And as The Post reports, his son, Andrey, was a volunteer for the Trump campaign.

Butina was indicted July 17 on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent of Russia. The Justice Department alleges that she worked under Torshin’s direction to infiltrate American political groups. Butina and Torshin were known to have close ties to the National Rifle Association.

Butina also had a personal relationship with Paul Erickson, a Republican operative who in May 2016 sent an email to the Trump campaign offering to set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Justice Department revealed the existence of a Butina “funder” in a memo arguing that the 29-year-old graduate student should be kept in jail until her trial. The government argued that Butina had contacts with members of Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB. She also met in March with a Russian diplomat who was expelled from the U.S. as part of a mass purge following the Kremlin’s alleged poisoning of an ex-KGB officer in the U.K.

The Justice Department argued that Butina’s close links to Russian operatives made her a flight risk. She could easily slip into the Russian embassy, out of the reach of American authorities, the government argued.

According to a DOJ memo, Butina’s Twitter messages and emails show that she referred to a Russian businessman with deep ties to the Kremlin as a “funder.” The DOJ memo says that the oligarch has a net worth of $1.2 billion and frequently travels to the U.S.

Nikolaev is a board member of American Ethane, a Houston-based energy company that does extensive business in China. On its website, the company touts President Trump’s presence at a ceremony to mark the signing of a $26 billion contract between American Ethane and China’s Nanshan Group during the U.S./China Summit.

A spokesman for Nikolaev told The Post that he was in contact with Butina between 2012 and 2014 while she and Torshin were in the process of forming a Russian pro-gun group called The Right to Bear Arms. Butina and Torshin used the group to make contacts with the NRA and host pro-gun activists in Russia. David Clarke, the former sheriff of Milwaukee, was one guest of The Right to Bear Arms. The group covered his $6,000 tab during a visit to Moscow in 2015.

Nikolaev’s spokesman downplayed the billionaire’s links to the Russian government. He told The Post that “Mr. Nikolaev has no connections to the Russian government other than those that are strictly required professionally.”

And regarding Andrey Nikolaev’s work for the Trump campaign, the spokesman said: “Like countless other young people studying in the U.S., Andrey volunteered to hand out leaflets just for the experience.”

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