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Woman accused of being Russian agent spoke in SD

SIOUX FALLS (AP) -- A 29-year-old gun-rights activist charged with being a covert agent for Russia inside the U.S. spoke of freedom and entrepreneurship at events in South Dakota in 2015.

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SIOUX FALLS (AP) - A 29-year-old gun-rights activist charged with being a covert agent for Russia inside the U.S. spoke of freedom and entrepreneurship at events in South Dakota in 2015.

Maria Butina spoke at a Sioux Falls school, at the University of South Dakota and at a teenage Republican camp held in the Black Hills, the Argus Leader reported. Federal prosecutors have charged Butina with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government and accused her of working to infiltrate American political organizations, including the NRA.

In South Dakota, the organizations agreed to host Butina after Sioux Falls businessman and conservative political operative Paul Erickson vouched for her, the newspaper reported. Erickson didn't immediately return a telephone message seeking comment from The Associated Press.

Dusty Johnson, the Mitchell resident who is now the Republican U.S. House nominee, organized the teenage Republican summer camp in July 2015. Johnson said Erickson offered to have Butina give a speech on the value of freedom that he felt would afford the campers important perspective.

"I'm angry that instead of being a freedom fighter that she promised she was, it seems as though instead she's a scam artist and a liar," Johnson said. "Expecting that people at a summer camp would sniff out a Russian spy as part of a 25-minute speech about freedom is probably expecting more than any rational person could."

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Johnson said he examined Butina's record online before the event and felt more comfortable about the free speaker because the University of South Dakota and Sioux Falls schools had hosted her.

University spokeswoman Michelle Cwach said Erickson recommended Butina, and roughly a dozen students listened to her talk in April 2015 about gun rights in Russia.

"USD regularly offers programs designed to offer students and the public insight into national and state politics, campaigns and elections, public administration and international relations," Cwach said in a statement.

In May 2015, Butina spoke to students at the Career and Technical Education Academy's Academy of Finance in Sioux Falls. A volunteer teacher there, Erickson invited Butina to talk about owning a business. Ben Schumacher, a school district spokesman, said in a statement there was "no political discussion whatsoever."

Butina and Erickson in 2016 formed a South Dakota company called Bridges, LLC. Erickson told McClatchy in 2017 that the company was created in case Butina needed financial help with her graduate studies.

Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, on Monday called the allegations against her "overblown." Driscoll said Butina was not an agent of the Russian Federation but was instead in the U.S. on a student visa, graduating from American University with a master's degree in international relations.

Related Topics: DUSTY JOHNSON
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