PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A conservative political operative who once worked on Pat Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign and made an action movie with Jack Abramoff more recently helped arrange several speeches in South Dakota for a gun-rights activist suspected of being a covert Russian agent.
South Dakota businessman Paul Erickson in 2015 helped set up at least three events for accused Russian operative Maria Butina and formed a company with her in the state the following year. Butina, 29, was charged this week with being a covert Russian agent who gathered intelligence on American officials and political organizations and worked to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin.
In court papers filed Wednesday aimed at persuading a judge to keep Butina in custody, prosecutors accused her of using a personal relationship with an unnamed American political operative as part of her covert activities for Russia. That operative was identified only as 56-year-old "U.S. Person 1" in the court papers. The papers say officials believe Butina and U.S. Person 1 have lived together and been in a personal relationship.
Butina awaits trial on charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia. She pleaded not guilty Wednesday during a hearing in which U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson ordered her held in jail as the case moves forward, saying she was a flight risk.
Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, has called the allegations against her "overblown." Driscoll has 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.
During the hearing, Driscoll disclosed that Butina had offered to assist the government in an unrelated fraud investigation into U.S. Person 1, which was led by the U.S. attorney's office in South Dakota.
The case against Butina raises questions about her connections to the 56-year-old Erickson, who hasn't returned telephone messages this week from The Associated Press requesting comment. The paperwork filed to incorporate the company, Bridges, LLC, lists few details, but Erickson told McClatchy in 2017 that the now-delinquent company was created in case Butina needed financial help with her graduate studies.
The New York Times reported last year that Erickson in May 2016 emailed a Trump campaign adviser and offered to set up a back-channel meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erickson in a February Rapid City Journal story cast doubt on the article, saying that "not all reports from the East are accurate."
In South Dakota, Butina spoke about freedom and entrepreneurship in 2015 at a Sioux Falls school, at the University of South Dakota and at a teenage Republican camp held in the Black Hills, all with Erickson's involvement.
Dusty Johnson, who is now South Dakota Republicans' U.S. House nominee, organized the teenage Republican summer camp in July 2015. Johnson told the AP on Wednesday that Erickson reached out with the opportunity to have Butina speak and appeared to staff her during the talk, holding up maps and helping her get oriented.
"I didn't talk to her beforehand, she gave her talk, she left, and I haven't talked to her since," said Johnson, adding that it appeared like Butina was on a broader speaking tour.
Johnson said he and Erickson were acquaintances from the University of South Dakota, but called Erickson "a bit of an enigma."
"He will have years where you don't hear from him, or don't hear about him from anybody, and then you might see him a couple times in a year," Johnson said.
A university spokeswoman said in a statement that two student groups and a civic leadership center hosted Butina as a guest lecturer on gun rights in Russia. About a dozen students attended the April 2015 pizza lunch to hear Butina, who came at the recommendation of Erickson.
The university isn't aware of any other speaker recommendations Erickson has made, according to the spokeswoman. The statement says Erickson briefly attended the university in the early 1980s, but later transferred to Yale University.
Erickson served as national treasurer of the College Republicans while at Yale, the Rapid City Journal reported. He graduated in 1984, got a law degree in 1988 from the University of Virginia and was executive producer of Abramoff's brainchild, "Red Scorpion," an anti-communist action film starring Dolph Lundgren.
Erickson worked in 1992 as national political director for Buchanan's unsuccessful campaign challenging President George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination.
Erickson told the Journal that business success — primarily in real estate development — has paralleled his political adventures.
"I've enjoyed 33 years of wildly diverse business ventures all around the world in industries ranging from hotels to housing to entertainment to energy," he said, but declined to share examples.