Newly filed court documents pertaining to an alleged covert Russian influence operation in the United States contain damning and embarrassing revelations about a mysterious “U.S. Person 1” who is widely speculated to be Paul Erickson of South Dakota.
U.S. Person 1 allegedly helped an accused covert Russian agent, Maria Butina, determine that she could enter and remain in the United States by using collegiate studies as a cover to obtain a student visa. U.S. Person 1 then allegedly cohabited with Butina and helped complete her academic assignments by editing papers and answering exam questions.
U.S. Person 1 also allegedly gave Butina access to an extensive network of Americans in positions to influence political activities.
U.S. Person 1 allegedly did all of that even though — in the written words of federal prosecutors — Butina appears to have treated her relationship with U.S. Person 1 “as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.”
“For example,” prosecutors wrote, “on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization. Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”
The prosecutors went on to write that U.S. Person 1 “was instrumental” in aiding Butina’s covert influence operation despite knowing its connections to a senior Russian Federation official who is identified only as “Russian Official” in the court documents. Speculation about the identity of that official has focused on Alexander Torshin, a former Russian legislator who is now an official with the Central Bank of the Russian Federation.
U.S. Person 1 and Butina were followed Saturday to a U-Haul truck rental facility where they inquired about renting a moving truck and purchased moving boxes, prosecutors wrote. When agents executed a search warrant on their Washington, D.C., apartment Sunday, Butina's belongings were allegedly packed and a letter was discovered notifying the landlord that the lease was to be terminated July 31. Additionally, prosecutors wrote that Butina and U.S. Person 1 were observed entering a bank on July 12 in Washington, D.C., where they allegedly sent a $3,500 international wire transfer to an account in Russia.
The revelations emerged in a memorandum filed Wednesday morning by federal prosecutors in support of a request to keep Butina detained while she awaits trial, due to the prosecutors' assertions that she is an extreme flight risk. Later Wednesday at a court hearing, a judge ordered that Butina remain in jail as the case moves forward.
The Associated Press reported that during Wednesday's hearing, Butina's lawyer, Robert Driscoll, disclosed that Butina had offered to assist the government in an unrelated fraud investigation led by the U.S. Attorney's office in South Dakota into her boyfriend, U.S. Person 1. Prosecutors confirmed the investigation in court, but provided no further details other than to say it was unrelated to Butina's charges.
Butina, a 29-year-old Russian national, was arrested Sunday in Washington, D.C., and is charged in federal court there with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years imprisonment for the foreign-agent charge and five years for conspiracy.
Previously filed court documents in the case also repeatedly reference a political operative identified as U.S. Person 1. Speculation about the person’s identity has focused on Paul Erickson, who grew up in Vermillion and has an apartment in Sioux Falls. Erickson has a colorful past that includes involvement in Republican politics, and he and Butina have been seen and photographed together numerous times since at least 2013. They also jointly registered a corporation in 2016 in South Dakota.
The memorandum filed Wednesday said U.S. Person 1 is 56 years old, which is Erickson’s age.
One of the federal prosecutors who filed the brief, Erik Kenerson, did not immediately reply Wednesday to a Rapid City Journal question about whether Erickson is U.S. Person 1. Erickson himself has not responded to numerous messages from the Journal this week. Butina's attorney has publicly denied the accusations against her, and she has pleaded not guilty.
Although Butina is being prosecuted by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia rather than special counsel Robert Mueller, the announcement of her arrest came just hours after President Donald Trump met Monday 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.