PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — President Donald Trump renewed his grievance over the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election by pardoning Paul Erickson, a former conservative operative once romantically linked to Russian agent Maria Butina.
Erickson received the pardon even though he had pleaded guilty to fraudulent investment schemes that had nothing to do with Russia or the agent. It was part of a flurry of clemency action by Trump just before his term ended, with the White House characterizing his conviction as “based off the Russian collusion hoax” and saying his pardon “helps right the wrongs of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American History.”
But Erickson’s schemes started long before he met Butina, who was deported in 2019 after serving time for failing to register as a foreign agent. Erickson pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering after being charged with operating fraudulent investment schemes over a 20-year period from 1996 to August 2018. The schemes bilked $5.3 million from 78 people and originated long before Erickson met Butina, according to court documents.
Erickson’s investment schemes, run from Sioux Falls, included recruiting investors for a string of elder care homes; developing a wheelchair that allowed a person to use the bathroom from the chair; and home-building in North Dakota’s booming oil fields.
Erickson received a seven-year prison sentence in July after pleading guilty to charges related to the North Dakota home-building scheme. A pre-sentence report recommended a range of 33 to 41 months, but federal Judge Karen Schreier went above that, saying that Erickson had targeted friends and family. She also pointed to a recent case in South Dakota where a man had received a lengthier prison sentence for defrauding people of less money.
“You’re a thief, and you have betrayed your friends and family, pretty much everyone you know,” Schreier said at his sentencing hearing.
Erickson was being held Wednesday at a federal minimum-security prison in Duluth, Minnesota. The Bureau of Prisons did not say when he would be released.
But one of his former victims worried that Erickson would continue to bilk people out of money.
“Two decades of stealing from people, he’s a great storyteller,” said Greg Johnson, a South Dakota pastor whom Erickson defrauded. “He steals money, he steals people’s names and he just keeps stealing from people.”
The two had been friends since their childhood until Johnson said Erickson stole his concept for a wheelchair that would allow people to use the bathroom. The pastor said Erickson used his name, and even stole his company, as he attracted investors into the scheme.
Erickson also ran in nationwide Republican circles for many years. He was the national political director for Pat Buchanan’s challenge to President George H. W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary. He worked as a media adviser to John Wayne Bobbitt, the Virginia man whose wife cut off his penis with a kitchen knife in 1993. And he joined with Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist later imprisoned for corruption, in producing an anti-communist action movie.
Erickson met Butina as she sought to set up back channels of communication between American conservatives and Russia. Butina admitted in 2018 that Erickson had helped her, using his ties with the National Rifle Association.
For Loretta Waltner, a Sioux Falls woman who once rented office space to Erickson, the pardon was an unsurprising development in Erickson’s saga.
“He’s always skated through life,” she said. “He got off pretty easy, and he did this time too.”
Erickson was among six people from South Dakota who received pardons from Trump. Gregory and Deborah Jorgensen, of Winner, were granted pardons and Martin Jorgensen was given a posthumous pardon. The Jorgensens were convicted in 1996 for selling misbranded beef under their premium label, but knowing that it was mixed with “inferior, commercial beef trim.”
Trump also pardoned Jessica Frease, of Rapid City, who was convicted of converting stolen checks at the bank where she worked as a teller and John Nystrom, of Pierre, who was working as a contractor on a school reconstruction project when a subcontractor received double payments for work performed.
Gov. Kristi Noem had advocated in all three of those cases, but not for Erickson. Instead, former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway did.
Johnson, the pastor, said as he heard the news of the pardon he “ached” for all the people who had been hurt by Erickson. But he still held out hope that Erickson could find redemption.
“If he could just use his incredible brain for good,” Johnson said. “He’s just a genius.”