The attorney for Maria Butina, the Russian national who’s serving time in prison for failing to register as a foreign agent, told senior Justice Department officials in late July that Patrick Byrne, who at the time was CEO of Overstock.com, had provided exculpatory evidence on Butina to the FBI as part of a years-long non-standard relationship with the bureau.
The July 25 letter by Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, matches the allegations that Byrne made on Fox News and CNN on Aug. 22. Byrne resigned as Overstock’s CEO the same day, due to concerns that his involvement with government investigations may affect the company.
Byrne told Driscoll—as well as Fox News and CNN—that he kept the FBI appraised of the details of his interactions with Butina, while maintaining a romantic relationship with her. As part of the reporting, Byrne told the bureau he was convinced that Butina was “not an agent of the Russian government or someone involved in espionage or illegal activities,” Driscoll wrote.
Investigative reporter Sara Carter first reported Byrne’s allegations in late July.
In the television interviews on Aug. 22, Byrne said he first met Butina in July 2015 at a conference in Las Vegas. After she had invited him to give a speech in Russia, he reported the contact to the FBI, due to a security clearance he held as part of foreign relations work. Byrne said the FBI gave him the green light to interact with Butina a “couple of months” later.
The relationship lasted until March 2016, when Butina again invited Byrne to Russia, this time to an event in St. Petersburg that would include a private 60-minute meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Byrne. At that point, the FBI told him to break off the relationship, Byrne said.
Three months later, around the time then-candidate Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president, the FBI reached out to Byrne and asked him to “rekindle” his relationship with Butina. Byrne told CNN that federal officials have confirmed to him that the order to rekindle the relationship came from FBI agent Peter Strzok, who received his orders from then-FBI Director James Comey.
Byrne noted that the FBI agents who told him to rekindle the relationship told him that it was his right to decline, and that the FBI doesn’t usually take such steps.
Byrne also referenced two unidentified officials above Comey in the chain of command as the people who ultimately issued the order. In Driscoll’s letter, the officials are described as those from “the highest levels of the FBI and the intelligence community.”
In his letter to Attorney General William Barr, U.S. Attorney John Durham, and the head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, Corey Amundson, Driscoll wrote that during Butina’s litigation, the U.S. government had “flatly denied” that Byrne was a government informant and denied the existence of any exculpatory material.
“He also told me that some of the details he provided the government regarding Maria in response was exculpatory—that is, he reported to the government that Maria’s behavior and interaction with him was inconsistent with her being a foreign agent and more likely an idealist and age-appropriate peace activist,” Driscoll wrote.
The attorney described Byrne, who is an adjunct university professor, as a credible source who had much to lose by disclosing his brief relationship with Butina.
Byrne said that he informed the FBI of many of Butina’s meetings in advance of them taking place and that the FBI didn’t intervene.
“This undercuts the government’s position at sentencing that Maria’s activities involved collection of information that could be of ‘substantial intelligence value to the Russian government’ or pose a ‘serious potential to harm U.S. foreign policy interests and national security’ as those same activities were observed and permitted for years,” Driscoll wrote.
In the television interviews, Byrne claimed that he was used by the national security apparatus as a tool of “political espionage” focused on the campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Trump. Byrne described the operations against the Rubio and Cruz campaigns as minor, and those against the Clinton and Trump campaigns as major. Byrne believes that the FBI knowingly let Butina infiltrate Republican circles so that her meetings could later be weaponized against politicians.
Byrne said he made up his mind to report what he knows to the Justice Department on the advice of billionaire Warren Buffett, whom he considers a mentor; Buffett confirmed the meeting to Sara Carter. Byrne relayed his allegations to the FBI over the course of seven hours on April 5 and April 30. He noted that less than two weeks later, on May 9, Butina was transferred from solitary confinement to “the nicest” women’s prison camp in the federal system. Days after that, Barr appointed Durham to investigate whether the spying conducted on the Trump campaign in 2016 was free of improper motivations, as well as related issues.
Byrne said he previously assisted the FBI to help solve the murder of his friend, Brian Williams, and to prosecute fraud on Wall Street more than a decade ago.