Boyfriend of admitted covert Russian agent accused of fraud

PIERRE, S.D. — The boyfriend of a Russian woman who admitted she was a secret agent for the Kremlin has been charged with fraud in South Dakota, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced Wednesday.

Businessman and conservative political operative Paul Erickson, 56, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to 11 counts of wire fraud and money laundering, a day after he was indicted, according to the South Dakota U.S. Attorney's Office. He faces up to 20 years in prison for each count. The charges appear unrelated to the case of Maria Butina, 30, who pleaded guilty in December for trying to infiltrate conservative political groups.

Prosecutors said Erickson defrauded "many victims" from 1996 through August 2018. The indictment accuses Erickson of concocting a variety of schemes to carry out well over $1 million in fraudulent transactions, including recruiting investors for a string of elder care homes; developing a wheelchair that allowed a person to use the bathroom from the chair; and home-building in North Dakota's booming oil fields.

Erickson made false representations to get people to invest in the schemes, according to prosecutors. An attorney for Erickson didn't immediately return a phone message seeking comment from The Associated Press.

Before his indictment, Erickson was caught up in Butina's high-profile case, which was separate from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Butina acknowledged she "sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics," according to her plea agreement. She admitted that her boyfriend, Erickson, helped her as she tried to use his ties with the National Rifle Association to set up the back channels. It's not clear if Erickson will face charges in that case. As part of her deal, Butina pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent and she agreed to cooperate with investigators.

In South Dakota, Erickson in 2015 helped arrange speeches for Butina to talk about freedom and entrepreneurship at a Sioux Falls school, at the University of South Dakota and at a teenage Republican camp held in the Black Hills.

Erickson, a native of Vermillion, South Dakota, has led a colorful career. He was active in politics as a freshman at the University of South Dakota, and became vice president of the Student Association in 1980. A profile of Erickson by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader in 2003, when he was working on a campaign to defeat then-Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, said Erickson was forced out of that Student Association post after obtaining confidential student records and giving them to a political campaign.

He transferred to Yale, serving as national treasurer of the College Republicans while there. He graduated in 1984 and got a law degree in 1988 from the University of Virginia.

He also worked on Pat Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign and later made an action movie with Jack Abramoff, the former Washington lobbyist ensnared in a corruption scandal in 2006.

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