This isn’t the first time Paul Erickson, the Republican political consultant at the center of a Russian espionage probe, has found himself in the middle of some drama.
Erickson—who served as a media adviser to a famously emasculated porn actor, a producer for one of Hollywood’s schlockiest anti-communist movies, and a lobbyist for one of Africa’s most brutal dictators—has also been sued multiple times after two business partners say he defrauded them on investments in his company.
One source familiar with Erickson, a South Dakota native, described him to The Daily Beast as “kind of like a taller, more physically unappealing Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can,” the movie about a serial scam artist.
“He is the single biggest phony I’ve ever met in South Dakota politics,” Lee Schoenbeck, a former Republican member of South Dakota’s House of Representatives, told the Rapid City Journal.
Conservative media activist L. Brent Bozell III, founder of the Media Research Center, first sued Erickson’s Compass Care Inc. in Virginia in 2007, alleging that a large investment he made was not repaid. Bozell claimed that Erickson claimed “investors had realized returns ranging from 50% to 100% on their investments within one year of the date of their investment” in his company.
But after investing $200,000 in Compass Care, Bozell claimed that Erickson delivered neither his original investment nor the promised return by the due date, instead offering only a $10,000 repayment after a previous check bounced. The judge in the case found in favor of Bozell and granted him a partial summary judgment in the amount of $190,000.
The suit echoes similar claims made against Erickson in California. In 2014, attorney Michael Barnes sued Erickson Compass Care, claiming that Erickson solicited a $50,000 investment in a real-estate project in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and failed to repay it by the promised due date. A California court ruled that Erickson was “factually found to have committed fraud against Michael Barnes” in 2014 and ordered him to pay roughly $354,000 in compensation.
The Daily Beast reached out to Bozell, Barnes, and Erickson for comment. All three either declined to do so or did not respond.
Erickson has been at the center of growing scrutiny for his relationship with Maria Butina, the Russian gun-rights activist charged by the FBI with acting as a spy for Russian intelligence in an attempt to build covert backchannels to conservative political heavyweights.
In an FBI affidavit released following Butina’s arrest, the bureau lists one of her close associates as an unnamed “U.S. Person 1,” described as a “United States citizen and an American political operative” who met Butina “in Moscow in or around 2013.” That operative subsequently introduced her to senior American political figures, including members of a “gun-rights organization” widely believed to be the NRA, “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
That description tracks closely with the known facts about Erickson and his relationship with Butina.
Erickson appears to have tagged along with David Keene, the then-recently former president of the NRA, on a November 2013 junket to Moscow—the same timeframe in which the FBI affidavit says “U.S. Person 1” first established contact with Butina. Photos posted to the Facebook group of Butina’s gun-rights organization show Erickson firing off rounds at a shooting range and posing for photographs with members of the organization in the same timeframe that the FBI affidavit says “U.S. Person 1” first established contact with her.
The two met again in 2014 in Moscow, where he spoke to Butina’s gun-rights organization. In a posting on her VKontakte social-media account, Butina described Erickson as “a Republican and gun owner” who “took his first shot at 8 years old” and “has more than 15 different types of guns in his collection, among them a modified Kalashnikov.”
The FBI claims that “U.S. Person 1” and Butina carried on a continuing relationship, which in March 2015 began to include plans for a covert backchannel between American conservatives and the Russian government that would leverage the thinly veiled “gun-rights organization” as a bridge. Emails between Butina and her pseudonymous correspondent show him bragging about his access to American political figures and advising her to keep her role as an emissary of the Russian government discreet.
In a May 2016 email to Trump campaign official Rick Dearborn, released by Democrats on the House Russia investigation, Erickson wrote, “the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin [sic] cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.”
Erickson wrote that “Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn’t forthcoming under the current administration. And for reasons that we can discuss in person or on the phone, the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true re-set in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.”
By that time, Erickson had been drawing closer to Butina. The two set up a limited liability company in February 2016, Bridges LLC, which used Erickson’s South Dakota address in official registration paperwork.
The timing of Erickson’s email to the Trump campaign coincides with what the FBI says were plans by Butina and U.S. Person 1 that were cooked up a month after the establishment of Bridges LLC to set up dialogues between American political figures and Russian officials. Butina emailed her hopes to organize “‘friendship and dialogue’ dinners in the District of Columbia and New York City” toward the end of May and “a representative of the Russian Presidential administration had expressed approval ‘for building this communication channel.’”
Two sources familiar with Erickson said he would habitually namedrop, make sexually inappropriate comments in conservative social circles, and try his best to weirdly charm and ingratiate himself with power players in the GOP and the American right. This would include frequently bringing doughnuts to events to try to win people over.
Not long after, Butina started floating in and out of the Republican social circuit in the D.C. area. She was often referred to as “that Russian girl” by movement conservatives aware of her recurring, sometimes awkward or conspicuous presence. Erickson and “that Russian girl” would often be talked about in the same breath, signaling trouble, or at least social annoyance.
Butina viewed their relationship as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” according to prosecutors, with Butina allegedly “express[ing] disdain for continuing to cohabitate with” Erickson. On another occasion, Butina allegedly offered a different person “sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”
Shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency, Erickson and Butina reportedly celebrated together at a costume party at Cafe Deluxe near American University, where Butina went as Alexandra, the last empress of Russia, and Erickson dressed as the mad monk Rasputin.
At the party, Erickson bragged to guests that he was on the Trump presidential transition team. That’s a lie, Ken Nahigian, executive director of the transition team, told The Daily Beast: “We have no record that Mr. Erickson was either a member of—or an adviser to—the transition.”
It’s also par for the course for Erickson, multiple people who know him told The Daily Beast. Those people all compared him to a used-car salesman and said he is known for exaggerating his connections and influence.
But that’s not to say he’s entirely without connections. Erickson also attended an event with Butina’s Russian mentor Alexander Torshin when Torshin visited the U.S. to attend the National Prayer Breakfast alongside Butina in the winter of 2017. Facebook photos show Erickson attended the Jan. 31 event alongside both Torshin and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). From her Facebook account, Butina liked a photo of the event.
The next day, according to Time magazine, Butina attended a four-hour dinner at Bistro Bis in Washington, D.C., with former Russian officials, “two Republican congressmen, a conservative magazine publisher, a longtime GOP consultant and a close friend of top White House strategist Steve Bannon.”
Erickson is also believed to be the “U.S. Person 1” named in a pretrial detention motion released by federal prosecutors, which alleges that “Person 1” had an intimate relationship with Butina. The “Person 1” in the motion filed Wednesday is described as 56 years old, the same age as Erickson.
Erickson’s apparent connection to an accused Russian spy marks an odd turnabout for the armchair college Cold Warrior, who told Mother Jones that in the 1980s he and other college Republicans “didn’t feel like the senior Republican Party was doing quite enough to battle communism” at that time and would “buy or borrow some concrete blocks, stack them in a wall in Lafayette Park, drape a Soviet flag over the top of them, soak the flag in kerosene, light it—and then, with sledgehammers, break down the Berlin Wall.”
Erickson’s ardent anti-communism also manifested itself in a producer credit for his friend Jack Abramoff’s cheesy 1980s movie Red Scorpion, an action flick derided as propaganda on behalf of repressive U.S.-backed governments like those of Angola’s Jonas Savimbi.
(Other brushes with silver-screen infamy include serving as a representative for John Wayne Bobbitt, the Virginia man whose penis was sliced off by his wife, Lorena, during a dispute in 1994. The organ was later reattached, and Bobbitt went on to make a few adult films.)
Through it all, Erickson has long been a gadfly on the margins of covert U.S. foreign policy. A 2003 profile of him in the Argus Leader describes Erickson as having provided aid to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s and who also traveled to Nicaragua in 1990 to celebrate the victory of covertly U.S.-backed Contra rebels against the Soviet-backed Sandinistas.
Nor would the allegations in the court filing be the first time Erickson has lobbied, legally or not, for an arch-conservative foreign strongman. In 1995, lobbying records show the government of Mobutu Sese Seko, the brutal dictator of what was then Zaire, hired Erickson’s lobbying firm, Erickson Associates Inc., to represent it in the United States. Erickson sent letters to members of Congress about the “urgent” need to grant Mobutu a visa to visit the U.S. and for the Clinton administration to lay off the country’s human-rights record.
Among those Erickson paid for help on the 1995 Mobutu lobbying project was David Keene, the former NRA president who had traveled to Moscow for Erickson’s first apparent meeting with Butina.
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff, Maxwell Tani, Martha Mercer, Noah Shachtman, and Asawin Suebsaeng