Updated at 9:05 p.m. ET
The Justice Department announced charges on Wednesday against a longtime Republican fundraiser who worked with his Russian girlfriend to try to build back-channel ties between Moscow and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Paul Erickson, a South Dakota-born booster of the GOP and the National Rifle Association, was a key part of the outreach to Trump’s campaign and other conservative political organizations by Maria Butina, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a clandestine foreign agent.
The indictment unsealed this week didn’t appear directly connected with the Russian influence story line. It alleges that Erickson defrauded investors in South Dakota by pitching them health care business opportunities.
Erickson allegedly took money but didn’t use it in the way he’d promised, according to the court documents. He appeared in court, pleaded not guilty and was released on minimal conditions.
In a statement provided to NPR, an attorney for Erickson said he looked forward to having his day in court. “Mr. Erickson has pleaded not guilty to all charges,” said attorney Clint Sargent, adding “Mr. Erickson is anxious to let the criminal justice process play out and believes a story different from the government’s will emerge.”
William Hurd, another attorney representing Erickson, separately told NPR the charges are “unfounded” and “will be met with a vigorous defense.”
It wasn’t clear whether there might be more charges in store for Erickson related to the Butina case, or whether this was the extent of the prosecution that authorities may bring.
There are suggestions in the court papers that Erickson’s alleged wire fraud may have been connected with Butina; one of the transfers described was to American University, where she was enrolled as a graduate student.
Erickson has become better known for the role he played in attempting to build connections between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
Butina coordinated her strategy with a Russian government handler, Alexander Torshin, and her practical efforts in the United States with Erickson.
It was Erickson, for example, who emailed top Trump campaign staffers in the spring of 2016 offering his services as a bridge, via the NRA, between them and the Russian government.
And it was Erickson, according to court documents, who helped Butina assess which American political figures or groups to make the focus of her work.
Erickson may have been helping Butina prepare to move to South Dakota at the time she was arrested.
Prosecutors raised questions about the nature of Erickson’s and Butina’s relationship in court documents that suggested she complained about him to others and might have self-consciously been using him for her political ends.
But Butina’s representatives battled back in the court of public opinion with the release of a video that showed them singing karaoke together and demands, in court, that the government withdraw its characterization of her as a femme fatale.
Since Butina’s guilty plea in December, however — which made it clear that she was involved with what prosecutors called a conspiracy to affect democracy in the U.S. — it appeared only to be a matter of time before Erickson faced charges on his own.
Torshin has been placed under sanction by the State Department and may not return to the United States. He spent years on his own seeking to build relationships with important conservative political institutions in the U.S.