- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Senate Finance Committee is probing meetings reportedly held in 2015 between two of former President Barack Obama’s top economic officials and Maria Butina, a Russian national who later pleaded guilty to conspiring to covertly influence U.S. foreign policy, the panel said Friday.

Committee leadership published letters sent to the current heads of the U.S. Treasury Department and Federal Reserve raising concerns over reports that Ms. Butina, a 30-year-old gun-rights activist, met with officials from the agencies during the Obama administration.

“The Senate Finance Committee has a constitutional responsibility to engage in vigilant oversight of entities and government agencies within its jurisdiction,” wrote Senators Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, the committee’s chairman and ranking member, respectively. “A critical issue facing the Committee and the country is the extent to which the Russian government engaged in efforts designed to undermine our political system and governmental policy through obfuscation and manipulation.”

Reuters first reported last year that Ms. Butina and Alexander Torshin, a former top official for the Russian Central Bank, met in 2015 with Stanley Fischer, then-Federal Reserve vice chairman, and Nathan Sheets, then-Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, to discuss “U.S.-Russian economic relations during Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration.”

Mr. Torshin was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in April 2018, and Butina was arrested three months later and charged with acting as an unregistered agent of the foreign government. She subsequently pleaded guilty to a related count of conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing.

“Given what is now known about them from public court filings, it is concerning that Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin were able to gain access to high-level administration officials to reportedly discuss U.S. Russian economic relations,” Mr. Grassley and Mr. Wyden wrote in letters seeking details about the meetings.

“Furthermore, it is imperative to understand the substance and extent to which Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin lobbied other administration officials in an effort to change U.S. policy toward Russia or other countries and whether decisions were made as a result of these meetings,” the senators wrote.

The letters were sent Thursday to Steven Mnuchin, the secretary of the Treasury, and Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Messages seeking comment from both agencies were not immediately answered over the weekend.

A third letter was sent to Dimitri K. Simes, the president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, a nonprofit group Reuters credited with organizing the meetings. A representative for the center did not immediately respond to a similar inquiry.

Butina attempted to infiltrate groups including the National Rifle Association as part of a secret effort to “establish unofficial lines of communications” between D.C. and Moscow, according to prosecutors. She pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent but has denied acting as a spy for the Russian government.

Moscow leaders have condemned the case and labeled Butina a “political prisoner.”

A former politician, Mr. Torshin, 65, served as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia from 2015 through 2018. Federal prosecutors allege he effectively served as Butina’s handler prior to her arrest.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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