For Thanksgiving last year, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford had more than turkey at the table. He also had over the woman government prosecutors are accusing of being a Russian spy.
The Post and Courier reports that the alleged foreign agent, Maria Butina, was one of 300 people at Sanford’s barbeque during the 2017 November holiday. The celebration took place at the Lowcountry lawmaker’s farm, Coosaw Plantation, in Beaufort County. She attended with her partner, Paul Erickson, “an ambitious conservative political operative from South Dakota who once did public relations for John Wayne Bobbitt, produced a movie about a Soviet soldier with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and had regular cash flow problems,” according to CNN, where the story of Butina meeting Sanford first broke.
Sanford and Erickson had been friends for decades. When Erickson mentioned that he didn’t want to return to his home in South Dakota for the holiday, Sanford invited Erickson and his girlfriend, Butina, to the Beaufort farm, the Post and Courier says.
Federal prosecutors charged Butina, 29, this week with acting as an unauthorized government agent and conspiring with officials in Russia while also alleging that she utilized deception and sex to forward the Russian government’s agenda.
Prosecutors say Butina lay the groundwork for her infiltration by setting up a pro-gun rights group while she lived in Russia and coming to the U.S. under the guise of being a student, CNN says.
Officials with the National Rifle Association traveled to Russia and met Butina and her gun group. After twice being denied a visa to travel to the U.S. for the NRA’s annual meeting, Butina received the documents to come to the U.S.in 2013, following her meeting with the NRA. Butina would go on to receive a student visa to attend American University in Washington, DC. She got a long-term visa in 2016, according to CNN.
Erickson’s part in the alleged subterfuge work is unclear. Whether he was tricked or played a more active role in Butina’s alleged work appears to be a factor that prosecutors are trying to figure out. But through the redheaded Russian’s connection with Erickson and his GOP contacts, as well as her networking with the NRA, Butina managed to infiltrate American politics, attended the National Prayer Breakfast, hobnobbed with politicians and even asked a question of President Donald Trump at a rally, according to media reports.
The accusations against Butina make her the latest face of the ongoing Washington probe into Russia’s meddling in the U.S.
Back on the farm, Sanford remembered Butina as being pleasant. The congressman, who lost his recent primary, told Post and Courier’s Schuyler Kropf, “She seemed nice enough.”
U.S. prosecutors say otherwise.