When G. Kline Preston IV first introduced National Rifle Association (NRA) leadership to Russian officials in 2011, he’d been close to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) for years.
Both Preston and Blackburn have a long history in and around Brentwood, the tony Nashville suburb. And as Preston — the lawyer whose relationship with both NRA leadership and sanctioned Russian officials facilitated the unexpected cooperation between the two — recently told the Tennessean, he and Blackburn have been “family friends” for a “long time.”
But as documents obtained by ThinkProgress reveal, Blackburn was far closer to Preston than has previously been reported. Preston not only listed himself as the “Campaign Finance Chairman” for Blackburn, but additionally worked for years as the president of Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc.
According to information now removed from his website, Preston says he served as president for Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc. through at least 2014, with official documents showing the work beginning in 2003. During the same time period, he also introduced Alexander Torshin, a now-sanctioned Russian official accused of mafia ties and massive money laundering in Europe, to then-NRA President David Keene. For good measure, documents filed show that Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc., also listed Blackburn’s husband as the registered agent, and listed Blackburn’s address as its own.
The fact that a key member of Blackburn’s campaign was also working closely with Russian officials raises new questions about designs Russian operatives may have had on recruiting allies among Republicans and social conservatives in the U.S. — as well as just how extensive this effort might have been.
Friends in low places
The relationship between Preston and Blackburn, whose campaign and congressional office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ repeated requests for comment, is well-known in certain Nashville circles.
The two “are from the same town — they’re thick as thieves,” one Nashville-based lawyer, who asked not to be named, told ThinkProgress.
Despite Preston listing his primary focus on his LinkedIn profile as “experience in business in the Russian Federation,” his professional relationship with Blackburn dates to at least 2002. That is when Preston says he began working as Blackburn’s campaign finance chairman, shortly before Blackburn was elected to Congress.
A year later, according to documents filed with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, Preston also picked up another gig: serving as president of Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc., a position the documents show he retained until 2009. The organization was founded in 2002, and is listed as a nonprofit. The registered agent for the group was listed as Charles Blackburn — Marsha’s husband. The organization also shares the same Brentwood address as Blackburn.
Preston’s website, however, said his work with Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc. extended even further.
An Internet Archive search shows Preston listed himself on his website as “Current President, Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc.” as recently as June 2014 — three years after he began acting as liaison between the NRA and Russian officials, a relationship now reportedly under investigation by the FBI.
Per the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the group was recently renamed “Marsha for Senate,” in light of Blackburn’s ongoing campaign for Senate. According to documents obtained by ThinkProgress, Preston is not involved in “Marsha for Senate,” a separate company registered in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, where Preston’s website says he ended his tenure as Blackburn’s campaign finance chair in 2004, a series of reports a few years later showed that Preston continued to work with Blackburn’s campaign committee.
As The Commercial Appeal wrote in 2006, the campaign committee for Blackburn was forced to pay a $1,500 fine to the FEC after the campaign failed to report over $60,000 in contributions and over $50,000 in disbursements. Preston, identified as the campaign committee’s lawyer, signed an agreement with the FEC describing the failed reportage as an “inadvertent violation.”
According to The Tennessean, Preston — who describes himself on his Twitter account, @gittinpaid, as both a “prophet” and an “amateur phrenologist” — further “provided legal services to [Blackburn’s] campaign in 2007,” around the same time that Preston’s wife, Tiffany, also picked up administrative work supporting Blackburn.
Elsewhere on his website, Preston listed another achievement: “Organized visit, participation and conference for Russian Government Officials to attend the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and meeting with the president of the NRA as part of a legislative project to grant Russian citizens the right to bear arms.”
Meetings and hosts
Preston doesn’t hide his affections for Russian President Vladimir Putin. His Twitter and Facebook feeds are drenched in material from Russian propaganda outlets, and he helped the Kremlin whitewash its recent presidential election, claiming both that he “didn’t see any complaints” and that “Crimea was, is, and will be Russian.” He’s even written a book entitled The December 4, 2011 Parliamentary Elections of the Russian Federation — The Case Against Western Media Bias and Prejudice.
Indeed, as Preston recently told ThinkProgress, he believes Putin was appointed by God.
I’m telling you right now. This is my personal opinion, but I think there are certain people throughout history, excluding Christ for obvious reasons — humans, not God — there are people who have been placed on this planet, once about every 500 years, who are difference-makers. Without whom things would be much different and worse. In the history of our nation I believe firmly that George Washington was one of those people. Had he not lived, this would be a totally different scenario. There are two people in Russian history in the last days that I believe were God-sent. One was Boris Yeltsin, and one was Vladimir Putin. And the reason I say Yeltsin… he was the guy that anointed Putin, and, man, that was a world-changer right there. Him. Yeltsin did it. And from whence it came, I can only think, you know, that it was divine
Preston hasn’t limited his attempts at building bridges with Russia to trips to Moscow. Recent documents discovered by NPR show how Preston acted as host for Torshin, a lifetime NRA member, and Russian diplomat Igor Matveev during the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
Torshin, of course, was recently sanctioned by the U.S. government. Preston told ThinkProgress that the sanctions haven’t affected his friend. “He doesn’t get as emotional as I do,” Preston said. “When we’re having lunch or dinner or whatever, I don’t pound my fist, but I’ll be very emotional about [how] this is stupid. He’s very level-headed, and his opinion about the sanctions are, ‘Eh, it’s just politics.’ It rolls off, man.”
Matveev, as it is, has also met spent time with Blackburn. According to local paper The Daily Herald, Matveev, then the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy, trekked to Nashville in 2008. While there, he dropped by Blackburn’s office, meeting with the congresswoman.
“It was very nice to have the chance to visit with Congressman Blackburn as well and discuss U.S.-Russia relations. It was a very enjoyable trip and I received a good reception,” Matveev said of the meeting.
This was around the same time that Russia began strengthening its efforts to reach out to social conservatives across the West. Likewise, it came shortly before Torshin requested a meeting with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), a woman whose politics closely align with Blackburn’s.
As it is, there’s no indication anything came from Blackburn’s meeting with Matveev — although it’s worth noting that a Russian Twitter account posing as the Tennessee GOP Party was the seventh-most mentioned account on the day of the 2016 election. And while Blackburn has carried water for President Donald Trump during the ongoing investigations into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, she has never been the most outspoken pro-Kremlin figure in Congress.
“I’ve never asked [Blackburn] for anything with respect to Russia or policy or anything, but she has always voted opposite of what I thought she should,” Preston told ThinkProgress.
However, the fact that Matveev took the time to drop by her office — and that Torshin spent over a decade building ties with Preston, a relatively small-time lawyer with numerous links to Blackburn — tosses fresh questions on how certain Russian officials view Blackburn, as well as how they might woo and lobby the Senate hopeful.
“[Preston] is this random guy in Brentwood, and he’s got all of these Russian connections,” the Nashville-based lawyer said. “It’s bizarre, and [the relationship between Preston and Blackburn] can’t be discounted, knowing what we know now. Especially as tight as he is with Marsha, it can’t be discounted.”