Alleged Russian operative Maria Butina became a key player in a failed jet fuel buying scheme cooked up by Washington lobbyist Donna Keene — the wife of former National Rifle Association President David Keene — during her time in the U.S. cozying up to conservatives and the American business community.
Ms. Butina’s efforts to deal in Russian jet fuel, detailed in hundreds of pages of previously unreported emails, were notable not just for their whiff of foreign intrigue but for who they involved: David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association and a prominent leader of the conservative movement, who has advised Republican candidates from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney. They also involved Mr. Keene’s wife, Donna, a well-connected Washington lobbyist, and Ms. Butina’s boyfriend, Paul Erickson, who ran Patrick J. Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign and who moved in rarefied conservative circles despite allegations of fraud in three states.
Their attempt to secure the fuel deal illustrates a reality that investigators have had to navigate in bringing a federal case against Ms. Butina. During her time in the United States, she surrounded herself not only with high-profile American conservatives but also with dubious characters who seemed bent on making a fast buck — and it was not always easy to tell one from the other.
The emails make clear that Butina had no experience in the oil business, and yet still she placed herself in the middle of a scheme to acquire massive amounts of jet fuel from Russian suppliers.
Butina was assisted by Paul Erickson, her boyfriend at the time, in working with Ms. Keene to broker the deal.
The dealings also involved a pair of Pakistani-American businessmen, an Israeli-American salesman for a Virginia-based lawn care and sprinkler equipment company and a purported international fuel broker with no record of successful deals. Mr. Erickson described this person in an email as a “tough, crotchety, sixty-ish divorcee who has spent his life in various energy transactions but now seems intent on using his small wealth to pursue age-appropriate women of a certain flair.”
The Times said none of the key players appeared to know what they were doing, evidenced by the details of their proposal.
“I knew they didn’t have any clue, because there’s no port in the world that could hold the amount of oil they were saying they could sell,” said Yoni Wiss, the Israeli-American who briefly met with Ms. Butina and Mr. Erickson in June 2017.
How did the story play out?
In March 2017, emails show, the couple met a man in Virginia who said he was seeking five million barrels of jet fuel. He offered to pay a finder’s fee of $1 million if they connected him with a Russian refinery.
In a series of terse, businesslike emails, Ms. Keene enlisted Ms. Butina’s help. On April 15, 2017, she pressed the young Russian to secure a “soft corporate offer” from Gazprom for the fuel. “I will NOT reveal the source at this point,” Ms. Keene wrote.
Butina countered that she could gather the needed fuel from numerous smaller refineries and pressed for a “good faith” payment of $25,000 in advance.
The emails also revealed that it was Erickson who coached Butina through the deal-making process, writing email responses for his girlfriend to copy and paste into emails of her own.
Butina’s insistence on a pre-payment apparently scuttled the first attempted deal, but Ms. Keene came back a second time with a new potential jet fuel broker — Roger Pol, whom Erickson later described as “crotchety.”
She arranged for Mr. Erickson and Ms. Butina to meet Mr. Pol at a restaurant outside Washington in late June and then apparently bowed out of the deal. Mr. Wiss, the Israeli-American who knew Mr. Pol, and another associate joined them.
“After five minutes, I said, ‘I’m done. They don’t know what they’re talking about,’” Mr. Wiss recalled. “It just didn’t smell right.” …
It was all for naught. Soon it became clear that Mr. Pol, who died of heart problems in February, could not prove that he had ever successfully brokered a fuel deal. Ms. Butina and Mr. Erickson went looking elsewhere.
Ms. Keene attempted again in August of last year to locate another set of potential partners, but this time nothing went as planned — a person familiar with the meeting told the Times the new prospects smelled a scam.
Instead of dealing with the couple, they reported them to the F.B.I., which by then was already tracking Ms. Butina’s dealings in the United States.