WILKES-BARRE — One of area businessman John Yenason’s Russian friends has been arrested — charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government.
A federal judge in Washington ordered Maria Butina jailed until a hearing set for Wednesday, according to a statement from the Justice Department and Jessie Liu, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
In March, Yenason, 62, was mentioned in the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s report on the investigation into suspected Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Yenason owns Pipes R Us, a mechanical contracting company on Darling Street in Wilkes-Barre.
The announcement of the arrest of Butina came just hours after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and just days after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials with directing a sprawling hacking effort aimed at swaying the 2016 election.
Mueller, the former FBI director, is looking into Russian interference in the November 2016 vote and whether any members of Trump’s campaign team colluded with Moscow.
When the news about Yenason’s friendship with Butina and Putin ally Alexander Torshin broke in March, Democrats said their Republican counterparts should have interviewed Yenason, who had been connected with the NRA and a Russian organization, “The Right to Bear Arms,” and who they believe may be the person who linked two prominent Russians with the Trump campaign.
In an interview with the Times Leader in March, Yenason admitted knowing the two Russians — Butina and Torshin, whom he called friends — but denied having any discussions with them regarding the 2016 election.
“I’m just a businessman in Wilkes-Barre who has some friends in Russia,” Yenason said in the March interview.
Yenason did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Torshin was identified as a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. Butina was formerly Torshin’s assistant, a report by House Democrats indicated.
Torshin was in the spotlight as the FBI was investigating if he illegally funneled money through the NRA to help sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, according to reports from McClatchy, the New York Daily News, ProPublica, NPR and other outlets.
The Associated Press story said Butina, a 29-year-old gun-rights activist, served as a covert Russian agent while living in Washington, gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin, federal prosecutors charged Monday.
Mueller didn’t file such a charge against Butina, but court papers show her activities revolved around American politics during the 2016 campaign and included efforts to use contacts with the National Rifle Association to develop relationships with U.S. politicians and gather intelligence for Russia, the AP story said.
Court papers also reveal that an unnamed American who worked with Butina claimed to have been involved in setting up a “private line of communication” ahead of the 2016 election between the Kremlin and “key” officials in an American political party through the NRA.
Attorney: ‘Overblown’ charges
The AP story went on to say Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations “overblown” and said prosecutors had criminalized mundane networking opportunities. Driscoll said Butina was not an agent of the Russian Federation but was instead in the U.S. on a student visa, graduating from American University with a master’s degree in international relations.
In March, a report described Yenason as having “been identified as a key individual connected to the NRA and the Russian organization ‘The Right to Bear Arms,’ started by Butina.”
“Mr. Yenason reportedly knows Alexander Torshin and Ms. Butina and may be the person who connected these individuals with senior officials from the Trump campaign,” the report added.
Yenason, who graduated from Dallas High School in 1973, is a former president of the Harveys Lake Borough Council who now divides his time between Northeastern Pennsylvania and Alaska.
In March, Yenason denied any culpability in trying to broker a deal between Torshin, Butina and the Trump campaign. He said he never had any discussions with the Russians about anything to do with the 2016 election.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle. The Associated Press contributed to this story.