Russia Probe Twist: A Billion Dollar CEO, A Convicted Russian Agent And The FBI
If what you already know about the FBI’s investigation into President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia has you wondering what can come next, “make sure you are sitting down because it’s about to get worse,” said Patrick Byrne, the philanthropist and CEO of the mega online retail chain Overstock.com.
Byrne revealed never published details about his intimate relationship with the Russian gun right’s activist and libertarian, Maria Butina, who is now serving out her sentence after pleading guilty in 2018 to working as a foreign agent in the U.S. without registering.
In an interview several weeks ago, Byrne recounted first meeting Butina at Freedom Fest 2015. He described the relationship that developed between the two and revealed that he had initiated contact in July, 2015 with the FBI after his first meeting with Butina. He also disclosed that he met twice with Justice Department attorneys in April, 2019 giving a total of seven hours of interviews on the separate occasions. A source directly familiar with the interviews, confirmed those meetings took place.
Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, also confirmed the relationship between Byrne and Butina. Driscoll stated that he also had relayed the information to the FBI and prosecutors earlier during his trial, and asked repeatedly about any Brady material -exculpatory information – that the bureau may have collected from Byrne on Butina, to no avail. The bureau denied it had any information regarding Byrne and Butina’s relationship, said Driscoll.
On Thursday, Driscoll sent a letter to United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut John Durham, who was appointed by Attorney General William Barr to investigate the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation; Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who is conducting an investigation into the bureau’s origins of the Trump probe and Corey Amundson, with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
“In writing, the government denied the existence of any such Brady material,” Driscoll stated in his letter. “Orally, during debrief sessions with Maria, I directly told the government that I believed Patrick Byrne, Chief Executive of Overstock.com, who had a sporadic relationship with Maria over a period of years prior to her arrest, was a government informant. My speculation was flatly denied. My associate Alfred Carry made similar assertions in a separate debrief that he covered and was also rebuffed.”
“Mr. Byrne has now contacted me and has confirmed that he, indeed, had a ‘non-standard arrangement’ with the FBI for many years, and that beginning in 2015 through Maria’s arrest, he communicated and assisted government agents with their investigation of Maria. During this time, he stated he acted at the direction of the government and federal agents by, at their instruction, kindling a manipulative romantic relationship with her. 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.”
“As an adjunct university professor and CEO of a public company, Mr. Byrne is a credible source of information, who from my view has little to gain but much to lose by disclosing a sporadic relationship with Maria. His claims are worthy of investigation. Indeed, he has much to say about the government’s handling of Maria’s case that go far beyond the Brady issue I raise in this letter. Regardless of these other issues, which I suggest you pursue directly with him, I was told the following by Mr. Byrne,” Driscoll’s letter states.
Byrne’s decision to come forward didn’t come lightly. However, he said it was necessary after watching what had transpired between the FBI, the intelligence community and the probe into President Trump’s campaign over the past several years.
“It was something I knew I had to do,” he told this reporter. “Those running the operation were not honest and in the end I realized I was being used in some sort of soft coup.”
Familiar with the possible backlash he will face, he made the decision to go public after speaking to his mentor and longtime friend billionaire Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. Buffet, whom Byrne describes as his ‘Rabbi,’ sent SaraACarter.com a statement Tuesday night confirming his meeting with Byrne at his home in Omaha, Nebraska several weeks ago.
“I’ve known Patrick and his family for more than 40 years,” Buffet said in an email to this reporter. “His father, Jack Byrne, saved GEICO in 1976 and I met his three boys when they were teenagers. Both Mark, the middle son, and Patrick, the youngest, worked for Berkshire Hathaway. Patrick helped the company without pay in solving a difficult business problem. Patrick is very intelligent and patriotic. He comes by Omaha periodically to see me. At the most recent visit – a few weeks ago – though I know nothing about the subject he was describing, I told him to follow his conscience.”
There are only several other reporters with knowledge of what you are about to read and another who is aware of the situation with Byrne. Byrne recounted his story of his involvement with the FBI and DOJ on video during the private meeting he arranged with this reporter, and several others.
The meeting between Byrne and the journalists took place in New York City. It was a little more than three hours long, for the most part completely on the record and videotaped. He told his story in seven parts.
He said his motivation is to get the truth to the American people about his role with the FBI and what transpired. There were allegations that Byrne revealed regarding other aspects of his involvement with the FBI that could not be verified.
This reporter relayed the full extent of Byrne’s allegations to the FBI last week. On Wednesday the FBI declined to comment on Byrne’s allegations.
Byrne, who is not the typical CEO, is a is familiar with big public battles. A Libertarian with a doctorate in philosophy, Byrne took on Wall Street in 2005. Byrne launched a massive campaign against hedge fund market manipulation and the possibility they were going to crash Wall Street. Some financial giants, along with members of the media, were chomping at the bit to destroy him, he recalled. It wasn’t until the market crashed in 2008 and he won his battle in court that those enemies backed off. But at the time, enemies of Byrne on Wall Street flooded the news with stories making him out to be crazy, “even a picture with a UFO coming out of my head,” said Byrne.
Byrne said he didn’t come forward sooner about his contacts with the FBI, which he describes as a ‘non standard’ relationship with the government, because he wanted to be “judicious and let the system play out,” he said, referring to the government’s ongoing investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Russia Trump probe.
“But I can’t trust that’s what’s going to happen,” he said.”I’ve been holding my breath for more than 12 months watching everything unfold. I’ve never met Trump, never gave the guy money, as soon as he said the stuff about John McCain I stopped listening at the time. This isn’t about Trump, it’s about what’s right for the American people. The public should know the truth.”
Earlier this year Byrne approached the DOJ and met with lawyers on April 5th and 30th. The first meeting was without counsel in Washington D.C. A source directly familiar with the interviews confirmed Byrne’s account of the meetings.
DOJ officials said they could not comment on Byrne’s allegations.
Driscoll noted that the information provided by Byrne should be investigated by Durham.
“Subsequent to Maria’s arrest, incarceration, plea, and sentencing, Byrne has felt remorse for the role he played in Maria’s situation. In view of recent reports of other alleged government misconduct, he has also expressed a fear that political motives may have influenced the government’s handling of Maria’s case,” Driscoll told Durham in his letter.
Byrne’s “recollection of certain conversations with government agents would appear to validate his concern,” Driscoll said.
Byrne Reveals Details About Butina To FBI
In those interviews with Justice Department attorneys, Byrne revealed details about his intimate relationship with the Russian gun right’s activist Butina. Byrne was a keynote speaker on July, 8, 2015 at Freedom Fest, a yearly Libertarian gathering that hosts top speakers in Las Vegas. Shortly after his address, Butina approached him. She told him she was the leader of a gun right’s organization in Russia. He congratulated her, spoke to her shortly, but then “brushed her off.”
The young redheaded Russian graduate student then approached him again over the course of the conference and explained that she worked for the Vice Chairman of the Central Bank of Russia and sent by them to make contact with Byrne.
She also said “Did you know you’re a famous man in Russia in certain circles? We watch your Youtube videos, we know about your relationship with Milton Friedman.”
She said she was appointed to lead Russia’s gun right’s group by Lieutenant-General Mikhail Kalashnikov, who was a Russian general, most notably known for his AK-47 machine gun design. Byrne says he considered the designation by Kalashnikov a significant honor, a signal of a kind he knows some mythical figures make on their way out. Byrne then had an “extensive conversation about Russian history and political situation. Butina told him that the purpose of her visit was primarily to extend an invitation to Byrne to come to Russia to speak at the Central Bank. After that, there would be a trip to a major resort to meet withvarious intellectuals and dignitaries from the Russian power structure. Butina told Byrne the event would offer him the opportunity to meet senior Russian officials and oligarchs. She wanted to see Byrne again to start preparing him for such a trip.
Communication In Disguise Of A Romantic Relationship
As she left, Butina told Byrne “I wish to make arrangements with you for this to happen with you. We will continue to communicate in disguise of a romantic relationship.”
Butina had to have a reason to be texting Byrne and believed that “she was being monitored and proposed that we disguise our discussions as a romantic relationship,” Byrne explained.
He admitted he was intrigued by Butina’s intelligence and believed that she may well have been a great contact and possible opportunity for peace. “She’s an intellectual, and wanted to engage at that level.”
Because of his security clearance, which he maintains for foreign policy work, he felt required to report Butina and her offer to the FBI.
“I have been involved with three peace efforts in my life, and stranger things have happened than that someone positive came from such an encounter. However, I was also keenly aware that she might be a Red Sparrow instead.”
Interestingly, then-candidate Donald Trump (who had only recently announced his candidacy for president), was also a keynote speaker at the 2015 event. During a public question and answer, Butina asked Trump several questions, as has been extensively reported by numerous outlets. Byrne had already left Las Vegas by the day Trump spoke and has never communicated with Trump.
Low Level Security Clearance Related To Work At Council On Foreign Relations.
Byrne said he had received a low level security clearance early in his career and “after something like this happens, there’s a number you call and I called that number and said there is something interesting, or note worthy going on.”
When he contacted the FBI and then subsequently for the next few months “instead what I got was vague instructions that it would be ok to get to know her better.”
He said there was very little response from the FBI after his initial contact, until Butina asked him to come meet her in New York City. He told the FBI he didn’t want any vague instructions on whether to meet Butina or not because “I didn’t want my security clearance to get pulled.”
At that point the FBI gave him an explicit “green light” to meet with her. He rented a hotel room with two bedrooms because he was under the impression that the romantic texts were simply her way to cover for communicating with him. However, she arrived at the hotel beforehand, occupied the room before Byrne’s arrival, and when he arrived, she made clear that her flirtatious texts were not simply a disguise.
Byrne said that the FBI agents made clear they were skeptical that Butina might be of interest, dismissing her as simply a normal 26 year old Russian graduate student. Over time, Byrne and Butina developed an intimate relationship but at the same time he alleges he was continuously reporting on Butina to the FBI in an effort to convince them that it might be worthwhile to introduce her to some of his contacts at the Council on Foreign Relations. He also noted he reported to the FBI his interactions more frequently with Butina starting in December, 2015, both out of a desire not to lose the possibility of something good coming from this encounter, but also, because Butina was starting to speak more frequently of meeting with big shots in Republican circles.
Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, told this reporter that Byrne’s disclosure regarding his contact with bureau agents is significant, revealing and should be investigated by the DOJ.
“Patrick Byrne is publicly saying that he was dealing with the government in regards to Maria and I would suspect that the FBI has reports or information regarding these meetings,” said Driscoll, who noted that he repeatedly asked the FBI for all documentation collected on Butina, including interviews with witnesses, notes and any other form of documentation. The FBI, however, repeatedly told Driscoll that there was no exculpatory information to give.
“It would be a Brady violation,” said Driscoll. “I would have to see if we have to go to court or not. I will have to go the the Office of Professional Responsibility. We’ve asked for the Brady material repeatedly and from the sound of it, it looks like there should be Brady material. We need an explanation to why they didn’t turn any information over to us with regard to Byrne.”
In 2018, Butina pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without registering. U.S. prosecutors had to walk back accusations they had made during the trial that she was a Russian spy using sex as a tool to gain influence and access. Prosecutors did have evidence that she was passing information to her confidant, high-level Russian official, Alexander Torshin, who headed a Russian bank linked to the Kremlin. Butina is currently serving out her sentence in Florida’s FCI Tallahassee minimum security prison, which ends on Oct. 25. The guilty plea was not an admission that Butina was a Russian spy but a failure to register herself as a Russian citizen working on behalf of her country, Driscoll said.
Byrne’s relationship with Butina was confirmed by a source directly involved in Butina’s investigation. The source confirmed that “she had a relationship with Byrne, they did meet at Freedom Fest in 2015 and had met at various points afterwards in different places. She had nothing negative to say, he always treated her well.”
Oddly, Byrne’s name was not disclosed by prosecutors in the case or by the FBI. And despite the government’s earlier efforts to paint Butina as a Russian spy attempting to infiltrate Republican circles she was never investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, which charged 25 Russian agents with interfering in the U.S. election. Further, the FBI, unlike convicted Russian bombshell spy Anna Chapman, did nothing to stop Butina from meeting with high level Republican and conservative figures. The bureau also didn’t warn those conservative figures she had made contact with, even though they had her under surveillance and allegedly Byrne had been reporting on her during that time. As noted in a column by The Hill’s John Solomon Chapman’s actions were handled differently than Butina. When one of Chapman’s associates, who went by the name of Cynthia Murphy, made contact with Alan Patricof, a major Democratic donor close to Hillary Clinton, the FBI acted swiftly to arrest the entire cell.
Driscoll said there was suspicion that the FBI did not disclose all the information it had on Butina and he stated that he believed “Patrick is not the only one” who was giving information to the FBI.
“We’ve thought of several possibilities and some we are more confidant than others. I’m firmly convinced,” said Driscoll, who shared numerous letters and emails with this reporter that he exchanged with the FBI.
Byrne, the FBI and Butina
Although Byrne was concerned about Butina’s possible motives, he eventually became convinced that she was an intellectual being used by both the Russians and American intelligence apparatus. She was stuck between two highly contentious and secretive governments, he claimed. He relayed those concerns to the FBI, he said.
“From January through March, in 2016 and I was telling (the FBI) I was 50/50, that this was a real opportunity and 50 that it was Red Sparrow,” said Byrne, referencing the American film about Russian spy’s who are trained to use sex as a tool to retrieve information from sources. He said he believed more in the possibility that Butina could be someone with the right connections to be an opportunity for U.S. officials to better understand Russia.
“I actually think that back then (in the Autumn of 2015)….it was two-thirds opportunity and maybe one-third, threat. As those months went on, those odds shifted, he said. “She had insisted to me that she was not a spy,” said Byrne. “Yet the more she swanked around in political circles, the more concerned I became that she would get herself in trouble.”
“I was surprised that there was no appetite in letting me connect her to people I know at CFR who are qualified to take such a meeting, but in fact the ‘men in black’ were telling me that was absolutely ridiculous,” said Byrne, who noted that their refusal to even consider pursuing the prospect was something he found “odd.”
“Eventually, her conversations became less about philosophy and it became clear that she was doing things that made me quite uncomfortable,” stated Byrne. “She was basically schmoozing around with the political class and eventually she said to me at one point I want to meet anyone in the Hillary campaign, the Cruz, the Rubio campaigns.”
Butina had also told Byrne, that Torshin, the Russian politician who she had been assisting while she was in the U.S., had sent her to the United States to meet other libertarians and build relations with political figures. She repeated to him numerous times that she was not a spy, even when he directly asked her. Her mission was, she said, whoever wins the election in 2016, to have a contact into that administration, so that the liberals of Russia could be known to the new administration.
Byrne said he warned Butina: “Maria the United States is not like Russia, and knowing powerful people ‘like oligarchs and politicians’ won’t help if the FBI believes a line has been crossed.” Byrne believed Butina was naive but not blameless. He said during the interview, “If you’re reporting to any Russian official as you’re doing this stuff and not disclosing yourself here, there are these men in black here and they don’t really give a shit who you know here -that’s not going to save you.”
Driscoll noted in his letter to Durham and Horowitz the extent of Byrne’s relationship with the FBI.
“At some point prior to the 2016 election, when Byrne’s contact with Maria diminished or ceased, the government asked and encouraged him to renew contact with her and he did so, continuing to inform the government of her activities. Byrne states he was informed by government agents that his pursuit and involvement with Maria (and concomitant surveillance of her) was requested and directed from the highest levels of the FBI and intelligence community.”
“As time passed, Byrne became more and more convinced that Maria was what she said she was—an inquisitive student in favor of better U.S.-Russian relations—and not an agent of the Russian government or someone involved in espionage or illegal activities. He states he conveyed these thoughts and the corroborating facts and observations about Maria to the government.”
UPDATE: An older uncompleted version of this story originally posted. The final version has been posted to replace it.
CLICK IMAGE TO READ THE LETTER OF ATTORNEY ROBERT DRISCOLL TO MICHAEL HOROWITZ