VERMILLION, S.D. -- A woman who delivered a speech to University of South Dakota students and registered a corporation with a South Dakota man is the latest Russian national to be charged with meddling in U.S. affairs.
Federal prosecutors revealed Monday that they have arrested 29-year-old Maria Butina, who is residing in Washington, D.C. She is charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government and is accused of working to infiltrate American political organizations, including the National Rifle Association.
The charge was brought by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and does not appear to stem from the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. But the announcement of the arrest and charge came just hours after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and just days after Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials with directing a hacking effort aimed at swaying the 2016 election.
According to court papers, Butina met with U.S. politicians and candidates, attended events sponsored by special interest groups — including two National Prayer Breakfast events — and organized Russian-American "friendship and dialogue" dinners in Washington with the goal of "reporting back to Moscow" what she had learned.
No names of other involved people are listed in the court papers, but the criminal complaint against Butina says there was “one or more conspirators."
Speculation about the identity of those conspirators is likely to focus in part on Paul Erickson, a 56-year-old South Dakota businessman and political operative whose ties to Butina have been reported by the Rapid City Journal and others.
Those ties date to at least November 2013, when Erickson was pictured with Butina in a photo she posted to Facebook, at what she described (according to an online translation tool) as the second all-Russian Congress of The Right to Arms Movement.
It was also in 2013 that Butina — who founded a pro-gun group in Russia — allegedly established contact in Moscow with a person identified in the criminal affidavit against her as "U.S. Person 1." That person is described in the affidavit as "a United States citizen and an American political operative."
In March 2015, according to the affidavit, Butina exchanged multiple emails with "U.S. Person 1." During the following several months, Butina popped up in South Dakota multiple times, although nothing about those appearances is mentioned in the court papers.
In April 2015, Butina delivered a lecture to an estimated 30 students at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion titled “The Right to Bear Arms in Russia … Where Neither Currently Exists.” Promotional materials said the lecture was sponsored in part by the W.O. Farber Center, of which Erickson is listed as a life executive board member by virtue of his donations to the center.
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In May 2015, Butina posted Facebook photos of herself delivering a lecture to the Academy of Finance at the Sioux Falls School District’s Career & Technical Academy. In one of the photos, “Paul Erickson Investing with Dignity LLC” was written on a white board. Erickson has an apartment in Sioux Falls.
In July 2015, Butina spoke at the South Dakota Teenage Republicans camp at Camp Rimrock near Rapid City in the Black Hills, which was arranged through her connection with Erickson.
Also in 2015, Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her own pro-gun group's annual meeting, according to reports in The New York Times, Time magazine and The Daily Beast. Among those who attended were Erickson, former NRA President David Keene, and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who later emerged as a vocal Trump supporter.
Finally, in February 2016, Erickson and Butina incorporated Bridges LLC in South Dakota. The publicly available corporate paperwork does not list the purpose of the LLC, but the McClatchy DC Bureau reported in January that Erickson said the LLC was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies. According to the affidavit filed against her this week, she entered the United States in August 2016 on an F-1 student visa.
Erickson's name has been publicly associated with the Trump-Russia investigations since at least December, when The New York Times reported that he had sent an email to Trump adviser Rick Dearborn during the 2016 presidential campaign. In that email, Erickson reportedly touted his connections to the NRA and the Russian government and offered to arrange a back-channel meeting between Trump and Putin.
Erickson did not immediately respond to an email or answer a phone call Monday from the Rapid City Journal. An automated message on his voicemail said the mailbox was full.
In a statement, Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations against her "overblown" and said prosecutors had criminalized mundane networking opportunities. Driscoll 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.
Driscoll said Butina's Washington apartment was raided by the FBI in April, and said she offered to answer questions from the Justice Department and Mueller's team but the special counsel's office "has not expressed interest."
Butina made her initial appearance Monday afternoon before Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Butina was ordered to be held pending a hearing set for Wednesday.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.