Paul Erickson served as accused Kremlin spy Maria Butina’s guide as she penetrated the American conservative movement. Now he’s under investigation as a Russian agent, too.
Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican politico whose Russian girlfriend is in jail on charges she acted as a covert foreign agent, has been informed that he may face similar accusations. The Daily Beast reviewed a “target letter” that federal investigators sent Erickson’s lawyer, which said they are considering bringing charges against him under Section 951 of the U.S. code—the law barring people from secretly acting as agents of foreign governments.
The letter also said the government may bring a conspiracy charge against Erickson, who is the boyfriend of accused foreign agent Maria Butina. The letter, which was sent in September by investigators working out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, does not accuse Erickson of any crimes or guarantee that he will face charges.
If prosecutors bring the charges named in the letter, Erickson would be the first American embroiled in the 2016 Russia investigation charged under a statute that Justice Department lawyers describe as “espionage-lite.”
“Charging an American under 951 in the context of the Russia investigation is especially serious because that statute is generally reserved for espionage-like cases, such as intelligence-gathering on behalf of a foreign government,” said Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department attorney who now teaches at the New York University School of Law.
“Essentially what it would say is that an American was acting to advance the interests of a foreign power, contrary to the interests of the United States of America,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor.
A person familiar with the investigation told The Daily Beast that federal law-enforcement officers have interviewed people in Erickson’s orbit, some of whom provided statements to the FBI. Law-enforcement officials asked those sources about the former political insider’s business dealings and his reputation in conservative political circles, according to that person. As The Daily Beast previously reported, several of Erickson’s former business partners have claimed he defrauded them. The U.S. attorney’s office in South Dakota is leading an investigation into those claims.
According to The New York Times, Erickson wrote an email to the Trump campaign in May 2016 offering to set up a back-channel meeting between the candidate and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And as Butina built relationships with conservative leaders, Erickson didn’t exactly keep his role under wraps. According to court documents filed by the prosecutors charging Butina, someone called “Person 1” and widely believed to be Erickson boasted that he was involved in “securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin” and the Republican Party.
If investigators charge Erickson under Section 951, he could be the first American publicly accused of acting (or trying to act) as an agent of a foreign government in connection with Russia’s 2016 interference. Other Americans roped up in Russia investigations—including former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and lobbyist Sam Patten—have faced charges for illegal lobbying, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But 951 is different. It’s a rare charge, and the Justice Department’s inspector general wrote in 2016 that prosecutors in its elite National Security Division describe it as “espionage-lite.”
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