Maria Butina at the NRA Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee (April 2015)
Lawyer for accused Russian spy speaks out
01:56 - Source: CNN
Sioux Falls, South Dakota CNN  — 

A man who had a close relationship with suspected Russian spy Maria Butina is a charming political operative who left a trail of aggrieved former business partners complaining that he owed them money, according to court records and interviews in his home state of South Dakota.

The emerging profile of Paul Allen Erickson, Butina’s alleged one-time boyfriend, comes from CNN interviews with a neighbor, a former friend, political acquaintances and his one-time lawyer — along with details contained in half a dozen lawsuits filed in local courts near Sioux Falls.

And news this week of Butina’s arrest by federal authorities has longtime friends in this usually quiet part of the American homeland wondering what brought the alleged Russian spy and the small-time Midwestern businessman together.

On Friday, CNN visited Erickson’s apartment. He did not answer calls to his cell phone or knocks on his apartment unit’s door. His dusty 1992 Ford Mustang remained parked in the garage beneath the building. The license plate reads “RTWING.”

Erickson has not been identified by prosecutors by name or charged with any wrongdoing, but his activities match those described in court filings as “US Person 1,” who authorities allege “was instrumental in aiding her covert influence operation, despite knowing its connections to Russian Officials.”

CNN spoke to eight people who crossed paths with Erickson, some going back 40 years. Those who knew him for years say that Erickson had a powerful presence and a convincing tone. By the accounts of those who knew him, he was an intelligent man with an ability to make you trust him. But, according to court records, some of his former partners sued him after feeling lured into what they claimed were false investments, and judges repeatedly ordered him to pay them back.

He and his companies were repeatedly sued for allegedly failing to pay back loans. Erickson was accused of duping a father-son business duo into handing him $30,000 for a company Erickson described in a letter as one that promised stellar investment returns of up to 75% per year for what he claimed was a high-tech patent for a wheelchair. CNN could not find any trace of such patents under his name. Erickson eventually admitted in court documents to owing them their unpaid investment.

Erickson also admitted in court documents to racking up $37,000 in debt on a Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card in 2013; he was sued two years later by American Express Bank for the entire amount.

Erickson was also twice accused of failing to pay his own lawyers, two of whom ditched him during the course of defending him in a single case because he would not fulfill his obligations, according to court documents. His first lawyer in the case, Terry Wieczorek, sat down with CNN and said he had little interaction with Erickson but acknowledged his former client’s reluctance to pay for his services. Erickson’s next lawyer on the case, Eric Kerkvliet, did not return CNN’s calls, but court documents cited a “communication breakdown” with Erickson.

The same charisma he apparently displayed to those in his business life carried over to his personal interactions at his Sioux Falls apartment complex.

Around the building, Erickson was known for his oozing charisma and his impressive physical stature, as well as his tendency to be a warm conversation starter. He would sometimes cook food or bake brownies that he would share with his neighbors.

At the apartment complex he’s been living and working from for 20 years, a longtime friend who moved near him five years ago told CNN that Erickson would introduce others to Butina as his “friend.” They mingled with neighbors at a 2015 Halloween party in the building. But the couple would stay at the apartment infrequently. They would sometimes go months without appearing at the building – then return and stay for a few days. Erickson had to rely on a neighbor to pick up his deliveries of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and a local newspaper.

Butina was often seen in athletic clothing, and she frequently ran on the treadmill at the apartment complex gym. The neighbor who spoke to CNN, who wished to remain unnamed, said Butina would sometimes express a desire to go back to Russia.

In late 2016, the neighbor said Erickson claimed that he worked directly with President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team. When teased about Cabinet picks, Erickson would shoot back: “Well, you should have seen the others we were looking at.”

Bruce Danielson, a local resident heavily involved in local politics, said Erickson’s “whole life is connections. He would work a room, like nobody could. Just to make the connections needed to make sure everybody knew he was there.”

“Paul always gravitated towards where power was at,” Danielson said.

Sioux Falls coffee shop owner Steve Hildebrand, a Democrat, remembered working opposite of Erickson during a 2004 US Senate race in South Dakota. He described Erickson as the “negative research guy” supporting challenger John Thune, who won and remains in office.

Hildebrand was not surprised Erickson is now dealing with accusations of mixing with a Russian spy.

“He wanted to have powerful relationships. He wants to be cozy with these people,” Hildebrand told CNN on Friday.

As Erickson bragged about his political prowess in South Dakota, he was quickly burning bridges in Washington. He served for a brief tenure on the board of the American Conservative Union, which organizes a large annual gathering of conservative activists and politicians called the Conservative Political Action Conference.

But Erickson was removed from the board in 2014. By 2015, he was no longer welcome at the annual conference.

“He was removed from the board. The board also decided it would be best if Paul no longer attended CPAC,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “He was removed for cause and that’s all I can say about that.”

Political operatives who dealt with him in recent years said he was something of a gadfly, always trying to get in with GOP presidential campaigns and transition team efforts. A person familiar with the situation said Erickson’s efforts to join the Trump transition team were rebuffed.

Erickson’s ties to well-known political figures stretch back decades. He helped arrange a speaking engagement featuring Oliver North 2002 at what is now known as Augustana University, according to Nebraska lawyer Charles B. Garman, who knew him in college. North was known for his role in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair, in which the United States illegally supplied weapons to support right-wing rebel groups in Nicaragua. Earlier this year, North was named president of the National Rifle Association, which Butina has been accused of trying to infiltrate.

CNN’s Sara Murray contributed to this report.