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U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-SC. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff File

The alleged female Russian spy who tried to make in-roads with the National Rifle Association and now faces federal conspiracy charges, spent Thanksgiving last year at U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford's farm.

Sanford, R-S.C., confirmed to The Post and Courier he met Maria Butina during a post-Thankgiving annual barbecue that drew up to 300 people.

She visited the farm, known as Coosaw Plantation in Beaufort County, in 2017 with her boyfriend Paul Erickson.

Her attendance was first reported Friday by CNN.

In a brief phone interview Friday with the newspaper, Sanford said he invited Erickson to South Carolina that year because Erickson was not interested in returning home to South Dakota.

Erickson and Sanford have been friends for more than 30 years, going back to when they were in business school together at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, Sanford said.

He said they had stayed in touch casually in Washington, D.C., and that Erickson wanted to bring his girlfriend with him to the Sanford gathering.

Sanford said he met Butina during the barbecue but did not have any extended conversation, largely due to the number of people, friends and family in attendance.

He knew she was Russian, remembers her being "pleasant" and that she didn't make any overtures to him about seeking information, he said.

Sanford remembers hearing about Butina's wish to start a Russian-style NRA group in her native land, he said.

Butina, 29, originally from Siberia, became the most recent face of Russian political tampering in the U.S. earlier this month and is alleged to have extensive ties to the KGB's successor agency FSB. She is charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government, suspected of gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin.

She is being held as a flight risk. Her lawyer says she did nothing wrong.

Evidence against her includes private Twitter exchanges stressing the need to be "incognito" and suggestions that she used sex to advance her intelligence objectives. Federal prosecutors say her graduate studies at American University in Washington were a cover for covert duties.

Butina's goal, according to prosecutors: using gun-lobbying efforts to infiltrate the NRA and the Republican Party, both during the 2016 presidential campaign and after Donald Trump's election.

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Sanford also told CNN he found the woman pleasant during their conversations at the party.

"I did meet her, a few interactions were pleasant," Sanford told CNN. "It's the girlfriend of a guy I've known for 30 years. She seemed nice enough."

"We always have a big crowd at our farm for Thanksgiving, sort of a family-plus event, and so I invited him to come down," Sanford said. "He brought his girlfriend."

"He said she was starting an NRA equivalent in Russia," Sanford said to CNN, joking it sounded like an "oxymoron" for Russia.

Sanford told CNN that he, like others, was surprised to see Butina's name and picture in the news this week being charged with acting as a foreign agent for Russia.

"It wouldn't be what one would have surmised as to who's somebody's girlfriend is," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

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