A bombshell report by Buzzfeed has found that federal investigators are scrutinizing “suspicious” bank transactions totaling $300,000 involving Russian national and purported lifetime NRA member Maria Butina and Paul Erickson, an NRA-affiliated political operative who is romantically linked to Butina. Two weeks ago, Butina was arrested and charged by the Department of Justice with secretly operating as a Kremlin agent, while infiltrating the upper ranks of the NRA.
According to Buzzfeed, counterintelligence officers say that Butina and Erickson’s banking activity “could provide a road map of back channels to powerful American entities such as the National Rifle Association, and information about the Kremlin’s attempt to sway the 2016 US presidential election.”
The NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections, including $30 million to support Donald Trump – nearly triple what the group spent during the 2012 presidential race. Most of that money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors, and according to a McClatchy report from January, NRA spending may have actually exceeded $70 million during the 2016 election.
- “A $45,000 payment to an undisclosed law firm. A cash withdrawal for $14,000. Almost $90,000 sent to or from a Russian bank. These and other bank transactions totaling nearly $300,000, none of which have been made public, offer the first detailed look at how an accused foreign agent and a Republican operative financed what prosecutors say was a Russian campaign to influence American politics.
“Anti-fraud investigators at Wells Fargo flagged the transactions — by Paul Erickson, a conservative consultant from South Dakota, and Maria Butina, who is in jail awaiting trial on charges of secretly acting as a Russian agent — as “suspicious,” noting in some cases that they could find no “apparent economic, business, or lawful purpose” to explain them. Now counterintelligence officers say the duo’s banking activity could provide a road map of back channels to powerful American entities such as the National Rifle Association, and information about the Kremlin’s attempt to sway the 2016 US presidential election.
“Cash withdrawals, most of them from Erickson’s personal and business accounts, make up $107,000 of the financial transactions now being investigated. The largest of those withdrawals — $14,000 — occurred in December 2015, when Erickson reportedly traveled to Moscow as part of an NRA delegation. The visit was sponsored by a Russian gun rights organization started by Butina, federal authorities say.”
Additional key findings from the report:
- 1. Bank documents indicate “Wells Fargo’s anti–money laundering team began checking Butina’s and Erickson’s bank activity in early 2017, after receiving a referral from the FBI. In a report the bank prepared and shared with the bureau and the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s financial crimes division, Wells Fargo officials expressed suspicion about the ‘significant control’ Erickson had over Butina’s account.”
2. “Through March 2017, the two had withdrawn about $107,000 from ATMs, bank branches, and checks made out to cash. Erickson made the vast majority of these withdrawals. Counterintelligence officials said they are trying to learn how the funds were used and whether they played a role in Butina’s suspected operation.”
3. “The two also appeared to use a company, Bridges LLC, to conduct suspicious transactions. Bank officials said they couldn’t determine the purpose of the company, which was incorporated in South Dakota in February 2016. Butina was listed as the ‘sole signer’ on its checking account, but Erickson wrote and signed checks from it.”
4. In December 2014, Butina “sent a pair of wires from her (Russian) Alfa Bank account to Erickson in the U.S. They totaled $8,000, and Butina noted they were for ‘grant assistant.’ Shortly after (an) email suggesting that she would need money to get her ‘special project’ off the ground, Erickson sent a dozen wires to her Russian bank account for more than $27,000 and an additional $30,000 to a US account.”
5. Bank officials found that Erickson paid Butina’s rent, “her tuition at American University, and even a monthly furniture bill, and that he received money from individuals described as personal connections. Some of the funds were characterized as ‘family support.’”
6. Erickson’s “personal and business accounts were overdrawn by a total of $2,300. He was hit with 77 overdraft fees. He took out payday loans of about $3,000 and had a balance of just $9 in one of his accounts.”
7. “In summer 2017, the two made about $93,000 in wires, checks, transfers, and cash transactions that were deemed suspicious, including more deposits to Butina’s Russian account. In June and July, Erickson sent two checks labeled ‘Butina retainer’ to a Washington law firm. It appeared to bank examiners that he was filling out checks for her rent and utilities, but she was signing them. She paid a Washington limousine service $5,300.”
8. This year, Russian banker, politician, lifetime NRA member and NRA donor Alexander Torshin, who is reportedly being investigated by the FBI into whether he “illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency” in 2016, was among the Russian oligarchs sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for playing a key role in “advancing Russia’s malign activities.” “Law enforcement sources told BuzzFeed News that tens of millions of dollars in Torshin’s suspicious financial transactions were flagged by Treasury officials working on the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian influence.”
9. “Erickson is also the subject of a federal fraud investigation in South Dakota, and some of the transactions flagged by Wells Fargo pertain to that probe, law enforcement sources told BuzzFeed News.”
10. “BuzzFeed News has also learned that financial dealings by Torshin, Erickson, and Butina were shared with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and the Senate Intelligence Committee, both of which are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.”
11. In a statement, Butina’s lawyer wrote: “The truth is that a review of Ms. Butina’s banking activities will show no illegal, or even remarkable, activity. As she is a Russian national with a Russian bank account, it is hardly surprising that some of her international transactions triggered reports. It is unfortunate that the FBI chose to leak information based on such reports and/or to allow its investigative concerns to become public.”