PAtrick Byrne disclosed that he had been in a romantic relationship with Maria Butina, a woman accused of being a Russian spy who tried to infiltrate circles of political power before the 2016 presidential election.
“While I believe that I did what was necessary for the good of the country, for the good of the firm, I am in the sad position of having to sever ties with Overstock.com, both as CEO and board member,” wrote Byrne in a statement.
Ms. Butina, who is serving an 18-month prison term after being accused by federal prosecutors of trying to infiltrate powerful political circles at the direction of the Russian government. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
The 57-year-old said in the document that an the FBI probe into links between Russia and the 2016 election is ‘all about political espionage’ and that ‘we are about to see the biggest scandal in American history’.
Byrne met Butina at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas in 2015 and she reportedly asked him to disguise their discussions about top-ranking Russians as a romantic relationship.
Mr. Byrne said he had released the statement because he realized that someone would uncover his involvement in the federal investigation if he did not reveal it himself. He decided to come forward after a conversation with his “Omaha rabbi” — a reference, he said, to Mr. Buffett.
Byrne said the FBI first encouraged the relationship, before appearing disinterested with the information he fed back. ‘They kept on dismissing it,’
He added: ‘It was so strange that I was thinking, it’s almost like they’re letting this can-o-scandal develop and someday they’re going to shake it up and crack it and spray it all over the Republican Party.’
Byrne said the FBI told him to cease contact with Butina, before saying in July 2016 he had to ‘rekindle’ the romance to help the bureau’s probe into Russian meddling in the election.
James Comey – who Byrne accused of sanctioning the operation – branded the claims ‘ridiculous’.
Comey said: ‘The FBI doesn’t work that way.’
But a US official has told CNN that during two meetings in April this year Byrne convinced Justice Department attorneys of parts of his story because he had revealed such specific operational details.
To add to this, former FBI official Asha Rangappa confirmed that some aspects of his claims were true.
She said the bureau encouraging a relationship between Byrne and Butina were in line with how the agency would run a counterintelligence operation.
But she added that it seemed unlikely they would want him to have had a ‘romantic relationship’ with the Russian.