How did the South Dakota Teen Age Republicans end up hosting a woman at their 2015 camp who was later accused of being an unregistered foreign agent for Russia?
Quite innocently, according to the current U.S. House candidate who was running the camp at the time.
Dusty Johnson won the Republican nomination for U.S. House this past June, but in July 2015, he was directing the Teen Age Republicans Leadership Camp at Camp Rimrock near Rapid City in the Black Hills.
Johnson said he was contacted that summer by Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican political operative who grew up in Vermillion and has an apartment in Sioux Falls. Erickson offered to bring Maria Butina to speak at the camp, and described her as an advocate for expanded gun rights in Russia who was on an American speaking tour, Johnson said.
Johnson agreed to let her speak to the campers, which she did, for about 25 minutes.
“It was an interesting talk,” Johnson said Tuesday. “She focused pretty heavily on the value of free speech and the right to bear arms. She described Putin as a dictator and a tyrant. She was engaging, and she gave at the time what I thought was a pretty effective talk.”
Johnson was so impressed that he tweeted a picture that day of Butina speaking at the camp. Johnson wrote in the tweet that Butina “was incredible” and that the campers “loved her stories of working for freedom in Russia.”
That three-year-old tweet is being widely retweeted this week after federal prosecutors announced Monday that they had arrested Butina and charged her with conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent for the Russian government.
The 29-year-old Butina is accused of gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations while living in Washington, D.C., and working to establish back-channel communications with Russian government officials.
Since the announcement of the arrest, Johnson has come under criticism on Twitter for his glowing 2015 tweet about Butina.
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“Obviously,” Johnson said Tuesday of Butina, “I’m pretty angry that instead of being a freedom fighter, she’s a scam artist and a liar.”
Johnson’s major-party opponent in the Nov. 6 election, Democrat Tim Bjorkman, called the Butina arrest and allegations “a shocking example of just how deeply the Russian government is attempting to penetrate our American institutions.”
Bjorkman said he wants to allow more facts to emerge before speaking at length about the case, but he also said, “I’m sure Dusty is aware he’ll need to answer to what he knows or understands about how on earth he was involved in exposing South Dakota teenagers to an accused Russian foreign agent.” Bjorkman and Johnson are running to succeed Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, who is running for governor.
Besides speaking at the Teen Age Republicans camp, Butina also spoke at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and at the Career and Technical Education Academy's Academy of Finance in Sioux Falls, all in 2015, and all with Erickson’s assistance.
Prosecutors are alleging that Butina made other appearances and connections elsewhere, including at two National Prayer Breakfast events and at Russian-American "friendship and dialogue" dinners in Washington, D.C.
Besides being seen repeatedly with Erickson, Butina registered a company with him in 2016 in South Dakota called Bridges LLC. Erickson told the DC McClatchy Bureau for a story published in January that the LLC was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies.
Erickson has a colorful past — including aspects unknown to South Dakota Republicans who routinely saw him “around” at political events — that includes serving as political director for one of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns; making a movie with Jack Abramoff, who later became a notoriously corrupt lobbyist; and representing the infamous John Wayne Bobbitt.
Erickson's name has been publicly associated with investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral system since at least December, when The New York Times reported that Erickson had sent an email to Trump adviser Rick Dearborn during the 2016 presidential campaign. In that email, according to The Times, Erickson touted his connections to the NRA and the Russian government and offered to arrange a back-channel meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
The new criminal complaint against Butina alleges that she had “one or more conspirators,” but no conspirator is identified by name in the court documents. In an affidavit filed in the case by an FBI agent, there are multiple references to “U.S. Person No. 1,” who is described as “a United States citizen and an American political operative.” The description and other details in the affidavit have sparked speculation about whether U.S. Person No. 1 might be Erickson.
Erickson has not responded this week to the Rapid City Journal’s attempts to contact him. Butina's attorney has publicly denied the accusations against her. She is scheduled for a hearing this week and faces up to five years in prison if convicted.