I was stunned and, admittedly, a little excited upon learning that my classmate from grade school did battle with the man who's allegedly been in cahoots with Maria Butina, arrested in Washington last month on spying charges.
Jerry Kamper was one of 51 classmates in Mrs. Ladouceur's third grade at St. Bernadette's elementary in Chicago. He was a formidable dodgeball player who was later drafted and served in Vietnam, forged a career in the Army, and stationed later in Germany and eventually at Fort Drum in upstate New York.
After renewing our friendship at our 50-year grade school reunion in 2013, we kept in touch, getting together with our wives for some New York pizza in Seneca Falls a couple of years ago.
But when news broke this summer that the FBI had arrested Butina, a 29-year-old Russian, Jerry contacted me with the breathless disclosure about the dispute he and his wife Cindy had had with Paul A. Erickson, Butina's alleged lover and go-between for the Kremlin and leaders of the Republican Party.
Butina is being held without bail for being an unregistered Russian agent who infiltrated conservative organizations like the NRA and the National Prayer Breakfast in order to establish a back channel between Russia and Washington, D.C. She allegedly seduced Erickson, a political wannabe who bragged about his access to the White House, to help her arrange a meeting with Donald Trump.
This wasn't a huge surprise to the Kampers, who knew Erickson years ago as the wheeler-dealer who ripped off them and scores of other army veterans looking for affordable housing.
Jerry sent me news clippings he'd saved about the con Erickson perpetrated in Carthage, N.Y., in the late '80s, along with Erickson's mugshot, which bears a vague resemblance to the late comedian Andy Kaufman. The clippings told about the Kampers and other innocent victims who lost their homes, their savings, or their credit rating by falling for Erickson's charm, persuasiveness, and lies about terrific homes with low property taxes.
In 1986, before his Russian mistress was even born, Erickson, like his beloved Trump, was a real estate developer who obtained millions in bank loans and federal grants on the promise to build 320 townhouses and homes for military personnel working at Fort Drum.
Jerry and Cindy, two of those personnel, signed up to finally get a permanent home for them and their 13-year-old daughter Nancy.
“Erickson tried to get us to say my mother back in Chicago was going to move in with us, and that would make us eligible for a federal housing grant,” said Jerry. “Of course Cindy and I would have no part of that. Erickson learned how to buck the system, and — he’s a smooth talker.”
Three years into the project, Erickson skipped town after building only 47 of the 320 units promised, leaving millions of dollars in unfinished infrastructure, and a dystopian scene of half-dug foundations and an unfinished sewer system, which led to constant flooding and accelerated deterioration of the structures that were completed, including the Kampers' residence.
Thiry-four of the 47 houses were eventually condemned because of water damage and malfunctioning heating systems, leading to departures, bankruptcies and foreclosures for many veterans' families.
Since my friend Jerry had been a member of Col. David Hackworth's infamous 39th Infantry “Misfits,” the most deadly and efficient fighting force in the Vietnam War, I expected that Jerry would have taken the lead in resolving his town's problem with the slippery Erickson.
Instead, it was his wife Cindy, a GS-13 worker at Fort Drum, who formed a neighborhood organization that fought and ultimately prevailed upon the town government, the New York State Housing Finance Authority, and the feds to repair homes and complete infrastructure so that families could rebuild their lives. In addition, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development made good on mortgages, so that the banks and Erickson were none the worse for wear — all, of course, at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.
Two years after Erickson ditched the Kampers and other service personnel, he resurfaced as the head of arch-conservative Patrick Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign.
Following Buchanan's defeat, Erickson returned to his home state of South Dakota, where he launched yet another development scam in 1997, failing to fulfill a contract to build 24 nursing homes, which led to more lawsuits and the same sky-high debt incurred in New York, with the final bill to be footed, again, by taxpayers.
Erickson's M.O. in each case was characterized in a seething editorial in the Syracuse Herald American entitled, “Homeowners Ripped Off” (1992): “How is it that these rock ribbed conservatives who rail against welfare abuse are all too happy to accept public largess themselves?”
When Erickson's name surfaced in the Russian spy scandal last month, Jerry and Cindy were heartened that there might finally be some comeuppance for the crooked Republican real-estate developer, ideally in a cold federal prison prone to flooding in heavy rains.
“I always thought that this is in his Republican DNA,” said Jerry.
While both parties have had their fair share of corrupt individuals, Jerry's sentiment is understandable, particularly when it's hard not to read the same 25-year-old quotation from the Syracuse Herald American without being reminded of Trump's gang of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and Michael Cohen, all facing charges of inappropriate financial dealings that cost taxpayers.
Add Paul A. Erickson's name to the infamous lineup and it is still, I fear, only the beginning.
Contributing editor for Hayward's Sawyer County Record, David McGrath is emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and author of "The Territory." email@example.com
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