The Overstock CEO Who Fell for an Accused Russian Spy
Maria Butina and Patrick Byrne. Photo: Alexandria Sheriff’s Office; Steven Ferdman/Getty Images
A web CEO like Patrick Byrne — the head of the online retailer Overstock until his abrupt resignation last week — isn’t an unlikely site at a libertarian conference like the annual FreedomFest held in Las Vegas. A less likely attendee, one would assume, would be an alleged Russian asset like Maria Butina, who was sentenced in April to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to a charge of conspiracy to act as a foreign agent.
In 2015, bonding over the works of Milton Friedman, Anton Chekhov, and John Locke, the two hit if off, and began a three-year, sometimes-romantic relationship that stayed under the radar until August 12, when Byrne published a bizarre press release — “Overstock.com CEO Comments on Deep State, Withholds Further Comment” — in which he claimed he was aiding the “Men in Black” in a “Clinton investigation,” and that he was the “notorious ‘missing Chapter 1’ of the Russian investigation.”
Naturally, investors weren’t thrilled as company shares dropped by 36 percent over the next two days, sheering $317 million off Overstock’s market value. And they probably weren’t thrilled by his interview with the New York Times on August 15 in which he described himself as a “56-year-bachelor;” said he was still “quite fond” of Butina, who is currently incarcerated for her efforts to influence the 2016 election by infiltrating the NRA; and recommended that she “go home and be president of Russia one day.” On August 22, Byrne resigned, and investors were a little more thrilled: His ouster boosted company stock by over 8 percent.
The son of the former CEO of Geico, Byrne isn’t one to keep his opinions to himself — he once called an oppositional hedge fund manager a “Sith lord.” Still, the two-part, nearly 10,000-word confession Byrne posted this week was surprising for its length and meandering candor. In “Maria Butina and I” part one, Byrne describes that when he met the Russian asset, she handed him a card titled “Special Assistant to the Vice Chairman of the Central Bank of Russia.” Over lunch in his hotel room, the two discussed Soviet history, a post-Putin Russia, and how the two thought “blockchain can change the world.” He says Butina invited him to a conference in the Altai mountains to discuss “blockchain, Milton Friedman, the Austrian School…. And a future for US and Russia that is a path besides war.”
In “Maria Butina and I” part two, Byrne derails a little, describing his first interaction with the “Men in Black,” when he allegedly helped federal agents investigate the death of his friend, former NBA player Brian Williams. He says the agents he worked with “look like Captain America, some like Serpico, some look like librarians.” He describes the “big takeaways” of his 20s, including the determination that “liberalism is best.”
Eventually, he returns to the topic at hand: In September 2015, he says that federal agents encouraged him to meet with Butina again, so he “arranged a two-bedroom suite” in New York where they could get to know each other and “plan a trip to Russia to talk at their Central Bank on bitcoin and how blockchain will change the world.” Upon her arrival, he realized her romantic interest: “She had indeed watched all my videos, and thought I was pretty cool.” He describes her as “an unforgettable woman. Great props to Mother Russia. Respect. A gentleman shouldn’t say but…Wow.” They made arrangements to see each other every six weeks or so until March 2016, when Byrne informed the FBI that Butina intended to meet with Donald Trump Jr. At that point, the FBI told him to “back off” and that he should “get Maria out of your life.” He says he broke up with her by text — until the FBI asked him to rekindle the fling in July.
It should go without saying that the account is unfocused: On one occasion Byrne breaks from the action to explain the importance of Milton Friedman and to define liberalism. In another pause, he lists his many academic achievements and fellowships in an effort to explain that he knows an intellectual when he sees one and “Maria Butina is an intellectual.” Even accessing Deep Capture, the site of the manifesto, is odd: Upon loading, it issues a warning that it published “hyperbolic language and shocking imagery” after the 2008 financial crisis, but has left the content up for posterity. If a user “disagrees” with this sentiment, it reroutes to tZERO, a blockchain platform related to Overstock. Byrne is a big proponent of cryptocurrency, which may aid him in the coming year if his Overstock options become troublesome: The company’s most recent quarterly filing determined that it may only have enough money to properly fund itself for another 12 months.