The South Dakota man who helped shepherd an alleged Russian operative to National Rifle Association and conservative political group meetings had a front-row seat to history and a less than stellar reputation in South Dakota politics.
Once a political provocateur, Paul Erickson virtually disappeared from the state's political scene in recent years despite having residences in both Sioux Falls and the Washington, D.C. area and boasting a Rolodex that allegedly contained some of the biggest names in the conservative universe.
Erickson, 56, landed in hot water with many of his associates, including L. Brent Bozell, III, a descendant of conservative royalty, over a failed business deal that ended up in court.
And this week, the Vermillion native came under the national spotlight when Maria Butina, his business partner, and roommate, was arrested and charged in Washington, D.C.
Prosecutors in court papers said Butina, 29, used sex and deception to develop influential connections. She made her initial appearance in court Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Erickson looked on as Ronald Reagan won his re-election bid, danced on the rubble of the Berlin Wall and celebrated the end of the Civil War in Nicaragua with U.S.-backed contra rebels.
He wrote a Hollywood film, helped convene more than a million men for a religious gathering in Washington, D.C. and ran a TV ad campaign to unseat then-U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle.
And it all started when he took an internship working on James Abdnor's 1980 Senate bid.
"I owe my entire career to him," Erickson told the Argus Leader in 2003.
He touted the experience on his resume and claimed success in talking about himself outside South Dakota, but another Republican who worked on the campaign said Erickson slouched on the job.
"He took a paycheck for that job, and he never showed up one day, never lifted a finger to help organize those campuses," former state Rep. Lee Schoenbeck said. "In reality, he’s just a con man."
It was a reputation that followed him in South Dakota politics, but one he was able to escape outside the state.
He went on to join the National College Republicans, picking up a network of political contacts he'd lean on for decades to come.
'Freedom-fighters' and a fallen wall
In 1981, Erickson worked with anti-communist campaigns to deliver aid to "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and Lebanon.
When he heard the Berlin Wall was set to come down in 1989, Erickson boarded a plane and arrived in time to celebrate there.
When he returned to the United States, Erickson went on to run a legal and promotional issue campaign for John Wayne Bobbitt in the aftermath of a much-publicized domestic altercation where his wife, Lorena, that led to the severing of Bobbitt's penis.
And in another controversial move, Erickson worked to get President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire a forum before the United Nations to announce free elections, but Mobutu died before any trip could be made to the United States.
Ties to national Republicans
In the 2000s, Erickson won the support of nationally prominent conservatives.
He struck up a friendship with Stephen Moore, then-president of the Washington-based Club For Growth. And in a 2003 interview with the Argus Leader, Moore said Erickson had "clever and creative ideas," and looked to him for insight into state politics.
"I view him as extremely shrewd; tactically proficient in trying to influence elections," Moore said at the time.
In 2002, Erickson was involved in bringing Oliver North, the former Marine Corps officer involved in the Iran-Contra scandal during Reagan's second term, to Augustana University. Reynold Nesiba, an economics professor at Augustana, said it was a controversial moment for the liberal arts school, sparking protests against the conservative hero.
"I think Paul Erickson was probably essential in making that event happen," Nesiba said.
The event also allowed Erickson to show his controversial side: He dropped in on a campus Democratic Party event uninvited. He wasn't welcome, Nesiba said.
But in-state Republicans viewed Erickson with suspicion. He started raising money ahead of the 2004 election telling donors that he wanted to launch an ad campaign against Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader who was getting ready to run for a fourth term.
At the time, Daschle didn't have an announced opponent. But most assumed former Rep. John Thune would challenge Daschle. Republican leaders and members of Thune's team were worried that Erickson's aggressive tactics might alienate centrist voters.
"He wanted to get closer to the South Dakota Republican Party than I wanted him to," said Randy Frederick, the chairman of the state party at the time.
Frederick said they were worried about ad campaigns that might contain "half-truths."
"If you are coming out and telling a half-truth, you will eventually end up getting burned," Frederick said.
In the late 1990s, Erickson set out to use some of the contacts he had developed over the years to raise money for a nursing home and Alzheimer's care company called Compass Care. Investors were sold on the idea of building 24 facilities that would be Christian based.
Although Erickson raised money, the venture went nowhere. By 2003, the same year in which he was telling donors he wanted to raise money to defeat Daschle, creditors began seeking judgments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars against Compass Care, including on the red Ford Mustang Erickson drove.
The creditors included Blue Stem Capital Partners, an investment company founded by former GOP Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby, who ran for governor in 2002.
In 2007, Bozell filed suit against Erickson after losing nearly all of a $200,000 investment into Compass Care. The lawsuit showed how deep Erickson was willing to tap his conservative allies to raise money.
Bozell, the founder of the Media Research Center, a group founded to highlight alleged liberal bias in the media, had an unmatched pedigree within the conservative movement.
His father had been among the post-World War II intellectuals who revived the conservative movement, and his uncle, William F. Buckley, was the founder of National Review, a conservative magazine that for decades represented the zenith in conservative thought.
In his lawsuit, Bozell said he had known Erickson socially for years.
"Defendant Erickson had from time to time represented to plaintiff Bozell that he was an astute businessman and an accomplished investor of his own and other people's money," the lawsuit said.
Erickson, the lawsuit said, promised Bozell that he would double his money. Bozell sued a year and a half after nearly all of his money disappeared.
A court eventually awarded Bozell a judgment of $190,000. Christopher Craig, a lawyer who represented Bozell in the case, said the judgment, which includes interest, was never paid.
"Keep in mind that the judgment is against both Compass Care and Mr. Erickson (he was a guarantor on the underlying debt)," Craig said in an email.
Some who had known Erickson said they hadn't heard from him in years. Rob Regier, who was involved in the anti-Daschle ad idea and who worked for the conservative South Dakota Family Policy Council, said in an email he hadn't talked to Erickson in about 10 years. Regier currently lives in Kansas City.
"But," Regier said by email, "I've certainly read, about him, plenty!"
Casey Phillips, a political consultant who once worked with Erickson, said the two would text every couple months, and Erickson texted him as recently as Friday.
When asked what Erickson had been doing, Phillips replied: "Just as vague as ever."
He saw Erickson on a flight from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. in June.
"That's the last time I saw him," Phillips said in an email. "This story is WILD."
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