Maria Butina at the NRA Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee (April 2015)
Who is Maria Butina?
03:03 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Rep. Mark Sanford, the South Carolina Republican and frequent critic of President Donald Trump, had his own run-in with accused Russian spy Maria Butina at his family farm last year.

Butina and her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, were two of roughly 300 guests attending a post-Thanksgiving barbeque last year that Sanford holds annually at his farm roughly an hour outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

Butina was charged this week with acting as a covert Russian agent in the US, conspiring with a Russian official and allegedly using sex and deception to build her network and expand her influence. Her efforts, according to prosecutors, were aided by an American political operative who helped her gain access to US political organizations and politicians. That person is not identified in court filings but the activities and description match Erickson, who has been involved in a years-long romantic relationship with Butina. Erickson has not faced charges in relation to Butina’s case.

Rep. Mark Sanford, at left, a South Carolina Republican, and Maria Butina, an accused Russian spy appears at right.

But to Sanford, Butina was the girlfriend of his business-school classmate who was trying to start the equivalent of the National Rifle Association in Russia.

“I did meet her, a few interactions were pleasant,” Sanford told CNN in an interview. “It’s the girlfriend of a guy I’ve known for 30 years. She seemed nice enough.”

Sanford’s run-in with Butina highlights the surprise felt from many around Washington when the charges against Butina – and the involvement of Erickson – were revealed this week.

Sanford said he met Erickson 30 years ago when they were both students at the University of Virginia, where Sanford graduated from the Darden School of Business and Erickson from UVA’s law school. It was a relatively small school, Sanford said, and he’s stayed in touch with classmates there, including Erickson.

When he returned to Congress in 2013, Sanford said he saw more of Erickson, and he invited his classmate last year to attend his post-Thanksgiving celebration at his farm when he learned Erickson wasn’t returning home to South Dakota.

“We always have a big crowd at our farm for Thanksgiving, sort of a family-plus event, and so I invited him to come down,” Sanford said. “He brought his girlfriend.”

Sanford said he remembers meeting Butina, though the conversation was light and not serious.

“He said she was starting an NRA equivalent in Russia,” Sanford said, joking it sounded like an “oxymoron” for Russia.

The group Butina created in 2011 was the nonprofit organization “Right to Bear Arms” in Moscow, through which she most likely met Alexander Torshin, who CNN has learned is the Russian official prosecutors say Butina conspired with.

The group attempted to ease the Russian laws on gun ownership, without much success, and Torshin became one of the highest-profile supporters of this initiative.

“Right to Bear Arms” fizzled out around the same time Butina started frequently traveling to the United States in 2014. A former manager of the group told CNN earlier this year they’ve ceased almost all activities and do not have financial means to promote their cause anymore.

Sanford said that he, like others, was surprised to see Butina’s name and picture in the news this week being charged with acting as a foreign agent for Russia.

“It wouldn’t be what one would have surmised as to who’s somebody’s girlfriend is,” he said.

CNN’s Sara Murray contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to correctly reflect that Paul Erickson graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law.