NRA leader, Jack Abramoff and GOP operative tied to alleged Russian spy Maria Butina have long history as foreign agents lobbying together

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Maria Butina (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina has changed her plea to guilty, according to a new joint motion filed by her attorneys this morning.

As her attorneys were negotiating the plea deal, her partner, GOP operative Paul Erickson, lawyered up in light of reports swirling that he too may be targeted by federal prosecutors as a covert Russian agent.

Meanwhile, David Keene — a paid member of the NRA’s board of directors and former president of the gun rights organization who has faced scrutiny over ties to Butina’s alleged Russian influence operation — has registered as a different type of foreign agent lobbying for Argentina’s government.

Keene and Erickson have a long history together dating back to the 1990s when they were registered foreign agents lobbying, in collaboration with Jack Abramoff, for a well-known “dictator” to gain entry into the United States.

Signs that Butina may soon cop a plea deal follows a September filing by federal prosecutors indicating that Butina “offered to provide information to the government about [Erickson’s] illegal activities.”

Meanwhile, DOJ scrutiny on Erickson is only heating up.

The Daily Beast reported reviewing a “target letter” from federal investigators that they are considering charges against him. Unlike the rare but increasingly common charges brought under FARA, Erickson is reportedly being targeted for violating Section 951 — the same statute Butina was indicted and jailed for violating.

The NRA’s cozy ties with Russia

In December 2015, Butina’s Russian gun-rights organization called the Right to Bear Arms sponsored an NRA delegation to Moscow where attendees met with influential Russian officials including former deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin who had been under U.S. sanctions since 2014.

The convoy to Moscow included Keene, Trump campaign surrogate Sheriff David Clarke, president and CEO of the Outdoor Channel Jim Liberatore, soon-to-be NRA president Peter Brownell and NRA donors Jim Gregory, Arnold Goldschlager and Hilary Goldschlager.

Alexander Torshin — a Russian politician and longtime associate of Butina who has since come under U.S. sanctions — played a key role in the trip and, allegedly, Russia’s decade-long operation infiltrating American conservative groups. A conservative Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV who has done business in Russia claims that he first introduced David Keene to Torshin in 2011 while Keene was NRA president.

Keene and Torshin quickly forged an alliance based on mutual interests.

“Just a brief note to let you know just how much I enjoyed meeting in Pittsburgh during the NRA annual meeting,” Keene wrote in a 2011 letter later obtained by anti-corruption activists in Russia that extended a personal invitation to the NRA’s conference the following year.

Keene added, “If there is anything any of us can do to help you in your endeavors . . . please don’t hesitate to let us know.”

“We will start organizing our own Russian NRA,” Torshin tweeted shortly thereafter.

In 2011, Maria Butina became founding chair of a new Russian gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms.

By 2013, Keene was introduced as an honored guest at the Right to Bear Arms conference in Moscow. “There are no peoples that are more alike than Americans and Russians,” Keene said. “We’re hunters. We’re shooters. We value the same kinds of things… we need to work together.”

Erickson accompanied Keene to the 2013 conference, where he reportedly first crossed paths with Butina.

Senate intelligence and finance committees have reportedly requested documents on the NRA’s connections to Russia, including documents related to whether the NRA took Russian money and the 2015 delegation. After spending a record $54.4 million to put President Donald Trump in the White House and support Republicans in Congress, the NRA’s membership dues dropped precipitously the following year.

Although the NRA’s lawyers initially denied the Russian money, they eventually admitted to receiving “a total of approximately $2,512.85 from people associated Russian addresses” and “about $525” from two Russian nationals living in the United States in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The NRA also acknowledged “membership dues” from Torshin, who has been a non-voting life member of the NRA since 2012 — the year after he first connected with Keene.

Even after his term as president of the NRA, Keene has maintained a cozy relationship with the gun rights organization. Keene is still listed as a director on the NRA’s’ board paid $32,000 last year for working an average of one hour per week, according to a new tax return reviewed by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Keene’s wife, in collaboration with Erickson, reportedly offered Butina $1 million to help secure 5 million barrels of Russian jet fuel — nearly two times all of Russia’s refineries exports in a month — in an unsuccessful scheme to sell the fuel through an American middleman in 2017.

Keene’s history as a foreign agent

Amidst all of the buzz surrounding his ties to alleged Russian agent Maria Butina, NRA board member and former NRA president David Keene took a different approach, registering as a foreign agent representing the interests of the government of Algeria.

Unlike Butina and Erickson, who are alleged to be Russian agents under Section 951, Keene has now registered as a foreign agent under FARA.

This is hardly the first time Keene has had a hand in foreign influence operations.

Keene kicked off his first registered foreign lobbying and influence shop, Keene, Shirley & Associates, in 1987 by inking a $60,000-per-year contract with the National Farmers’ Federation of Australia before signing on to represent Nicaraguan interests the following year. The firm’s board of directors included Keene’s wife, Diana, and another political consultant named Craigan Shirley.

Perhaps most well-known is Keene’s lobbying for Nigeria and Algeria — which was disclosed under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Keene went on to lobby for a broad array of interests, including the World Wrestling Federation.

Now David Keene has again registered as a foreign agent, according to FARA filings made available through CRP’s Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

Outlining the terms of their $360,000 lobbying agreement, Algeria’s government issued a cheeky press release titled “Algeria is Keen on NRA Alum Keene.”

One chapter of Keene’s lobbying history has made even fewer headlines: The time he, Paul Erickson and Jack Abramoff were lobbying for a widely recognized dictator’s entry into the United States.

Erickson and Abramoff had been longtime friends whose professional lives often intertwined. After college Republicans, Erickson and Abramoff went on to do more than just develop the anti-Communist Dolph Lundgren flick Red Scorpion together.

In 1995, Erickson obtained a $30,000 contract for a six-week stint lobbying for entrance into the United States on behalf of Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of the Republic of Congo during the Rwandan genocide who was widely referenced as a military dictator. Mobutu had been banned from the entering the United States after he developed political ties while working as a journalist then formed an authoritarian regime. He was notorious for corruption, nepotism, and embezzlement between $4 and $15 billion during his reign as well as widespread human rights violations.

As Abramoff noted in the FARA disclosures, he was “under no illusion we are dealing with Thomas Jefferson.”

The official foreign principal who hired Erickson’s firm was Andre Soussan, a “Danish citizen residing in Paris who is a close political advisor to President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire,” according to the FARA disclosures obtained by CRP.

Soussan reportedly “acted as an intermediary for President Mobutu’s quest for a U.S. visa,” which entailed rallying together members of Congress to write letters of support and “employment of Mr. Keene to assist in Andrew Soussan’s visa quest.” But the FARA disclosures discovered through Foreign Lobby Watch’s full-text search feature show Soussan played little role in the operation.

In the FARA disclosure, Abramoff argued that negotiations in the United States, “where Mobutu has few or no friends — would be less susceptible to manipulation.” U.S. officials did not agree, reportedly pushing back that Mobutu merely wanted to sanitize his image by appearing to support democratic reforms so he could stage controlled elections and further consolidate his power.

The State Department ultimately rejected Mobutu’s entrance into the United States. He stayed in power until he was expelled in 1997.

Abramoff has again been implicated in Erickson’s schemes related to Butina, though the full extent and scope of Abramoff’s role is unclear.

Anti-fraud investigators at Wells Fargo bank, acting on a tip from federal investigators, flagged potentially suspicious bank transfers from an account held jointly by Butina and Erickson to what appeared to be a shell company tied to Abramoff’s family. Erickson sent wire transfers for $15,000 to a California company incorporated in March 2017 out of the home of Abramoff’s son who is listed as its CEO and sole director while Abramoff’s brother is the registered agent.

A tale of two types of foreign agent

Unlike the registration requirements under FARA, Butina’s charges of conspiracy and illegally acting as an agent of the Russian government, as well as potential charges, reportedly outlined in Erickson’s target letter fall under a separate criminal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 951.

Both statutes expressly prohibit “acting” as a foreign agent without prior notification or registration, but there are several subtle differences between the two statutes.

A key distinction between the two statutes is that activity covered under Section 951 does not have to be political and is also limited to activity on behalf of foreign governments. This means 951 generally does not apply to agents acting on behalf of other non-government foreign interests such as companies or nonprofits that may be covered under FARA while FARA does not apply to non-political activities that may be covered by Section 951.

Confused yet? You’re not alone.

A 2016 Inspector General report found that personnel interviewed “frequently” confused the two statutes. Despite using similar terms like “agent” and relating to foreign influence, the two statutes address different types of conduct.

Attempting to provide some clarity on the issue, the Inspector General notes that “typical conduct to which Section 951 applies consists of espionage-like behavior, information gathering, and procurement of technology, on behalf of foreign governments or officials. FARA, on the other hand, is designed to provide transparency regarding efforts by foreign principals (a term defined more broadly than foreign governments or officials) to influence the U.S. government or public through public speech, political activities, and lobbying.

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