While he was involved with accused Russian spy Maria Butina, Paul Erickson was trying to sell investors on an oil-rich real estate deal using a company that appears not to have existed on land that he did not own, according to multiple sources, court records, and data reviewed by The Daily Beast.
It was 2014 and North Dakota was experiencing a major oil boom—one propped up by the burgeoning fracking industry in the Bakken formation, a swath of 200,000 square miles of land stretching across the state to Minnesota and into parts of Canada.
Erickson solicited investments from attendees at conservative political events by laying out a deal that promised high returns, according to three people with knowledge of the deal and court records reviewed by The Daily Beast. Erickson, who represented himself as a real estate developer, planned to use his company in North Dakota to set up a transaction in the Bakken region, the sources said. But Erickson doesn’t appear to have planned on carrying out the deal, according to a 2015 judgement by a California court. And the company he represented doesn’t appear to have ever existed, according to a review of public records by The Daily Beast.
The details behind the deal Erickson promoted in North Dakota shed new light on an individual who was entangled in a relationship with an accused Russian operative and who is now being probed by the U.S. attorney’s office in South Dakota and the FBI, according to two people with knowledge of the efforts. The Bakken deal also raises questions about how Erickson used the investment money he accumulated. His former business partners now wonder whether the money from the deal went into any of his activities with Butina.
Originally from Russia and a close confidant of Russian central bank official Alexander Torshin, Butina is currently in an Alexandria jail on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent.
Throughout the Butina court documents, federal investigators mention a “U.S. Person 1”—an individual Butina worked with, dated and used to make connections with “an extensive network” of right-wing political figures. That person, who documents say is closely tied to the National Rifle Association, is largely believed to be Erickson. Butina recently offered to provide information to the government about Erickson’s illegal activities, according to a document filed by the government in Butina’s case in Washington, D.C. last week. Although Erickson has has not been accused of any wrongdoing officially, the document described “U.S. Person 1” as an individual that "aided the defendant’s charged criminal activity for years and, as such, should not be viewed as a positive tie to the community."
By the time he met Butina in 2013, Erickson had founded a handful of companies in South Dakota that dabbled in sectors ranging from real estate to patenting. He had solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment for his business ventures. But he was also in legal trouble, according to court records. As first reported by The Daily Beast in July, several people have sued Erickson in California, Virginia, and South Dakota, claiming he misrepresented himself and his businesses and failed to pay investors back. In one case, Erickson attempted to pay back an investor, but the check bounced.
The Bakken oil deal shows Erickson not only failed to manage his investments properly, but he also knowingly misled investors about owning a company in North Dakota, according to a 2015 judgement filed in a California court.
In an email in November of 2013 to a potential investor for the Bakken deal, Erickson asked for funding for what he called his “new real estate development venture” in North Dakota.
“I’m extremely proud of the work of our development team as together we find new ways to service the office and housing needs of this new American gold rush,” Erickson wrote. In the email, Erickson called his new business the “Bakken oil fields” and said it was set up to capitalize on the boom in North Dakota.
“Due to your interest in my work and in consideration of past kindness, I would welcome your investment of any amount you choose (up to $100,000),” the email said.
Erickson noted in the email that any investment would be governed by two conditions. One, that returns would be repaid by February 18, 2014 and two, that he would repay the full amount of investments if the deal did not materialize. Erickson garnered at least $50,000 from the email exchange and did not pay any of it back, according to the judge’s decision on the case.
Two individuals familiar with the Erickson deal said he told investors he owned several parcels of land near Williston, North Dakota and would set up a transaction between two of his companies. In a complaint filed in a lawsuit in 2015, one of the investors alleges Erickson planned to use a company he controlled to sell undeveloped North Dakota land it owned to a second company Erickson controlled.
“Such a transfer would result in profits for Defendant, as owner of the first seller company, on account of a secured lender giving a higher valuation to the land, on account of various entitlements acquisitions which were part of the Transaction,” according to the complaint.
One of the companies he represented while soliciting investments was Northern Plains Holdings, LLC, according to investors and people familiar with the deal. The North Dakota secretary of state’s office told The Daily Beast it did not have record of such a company connected to Erickson. It’s unclear what other company Erickson planned to use. The Daily Beast also checked property ownership data for North Dakota and could not find evidence Erickson ever owned land in Williston.
At one point in 2014, when he was dating Butina, Erickson admitted to an investor that he had used some or all of the money for personal expenses. In a 2015 default judgement, the court found Erickson had committed fraud.
Erickson did not provide the investor with details of how he used the money, but those involved in the Bakken deal are now questioning if some or all of the money they gave to Erickson went to funding his relationship with Butina.
“[Erickson] was a liar,” one investor told The Daily Beast. “He seemed like one of those people that liked to to try and exist on the periphery of power politics in Washington so he could lure people in.”
Those associated with Erickson told The Daily Beast he relied on meeting people at events such as the National Rifle Association and the Conservative Political Action Conference to find people to fund his ventures, including the one in North Dakota. Erickson wooed those he met into investing by offering attractive terms specifically for “friends and family,” according to court records.
“Power is an aphrodisiac in politics. Paul always attracted people around him,” said Gary Byler, a longtime friend and an attorney in Virginia Beach. “He is great fun to be about.”
Byler also called Erickson “a great American.”
There’s no evidence to suggest Erickson coordinated with Butina on the Bakken oil deal. However, the couple has worked together on several different business deals since 2013, including one that involved Russian jet fuel, according to a recent report by The New York Times. Erickson and Butina also worked together operating Bridges LLC, a company they registered in 2016 in in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s unclear from South Dakota records how the company conducted its business.
Around the same time, Erickson reached out to the Trump campaign and suggested setting up a meeting between the candidate and President Vladimir Putin. In a May 2016 email to Trump’s campaign advisor Rick Dearborn titled “Kremlin connection,” Erickson presented himself as someone connected to the Russian government and said he could arrange a back-channel meeting, according to The New York Times.
The U.S. attorney’s office in South Dakota is currently leading a fraud investigation into Erickson’s business dealings, and the FBI is questioning those in his orbit. Several of his companies are registered in the state. Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll in July said his client had offered to assist law enforcement in its investigation. But last week he told the Associated Press Butina in fact knew “very little” about the case and that she was not “aware or guilty of any crimes” in South Dakota.
Documents filed in the Butina case show Erickson met with the agency earlier this summer. The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in South Dakota both declined to comment for this story. Erickson and his lawyer did not respond to calls for comment.
Meanwhile, Erickson is “holding up well,” Byler said, adding that he had lunch with his friend within the past two weeks. “Paul understands politics is a contact sport. But he is very smart. I think he can put two and two together and understand the reality of things.”