Lobbying for foreign interests: where are the patriots?

 

coins

All for a few coins.

Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security advisor, had a lucrative $530,000 lobbying contract with Inovo BV, a Netherlands-based consulting firm owned by a Turkish national.

Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Manafort’s former business partner Rick Gates have pleaded not guilty to federal charges, including failing to register for lobbying they did for Viktor Yanukovych, the thoroughly corrupt former president of Ukraine, and his pro-Russian political party. A popular uprising ousted Yanukovych in 2014.

UkraineKievprotest--621x414

Anti-government protesters clash with the police at the central Kiev square in the Ukraine

Thousands of Syrians were dead and Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were hosting Syrian refugees as Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, pursued a war to new heights of brutality.

syrianrefugees

Syrian refugees.

But the war and refugees weren’t U.S. lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James’ concern. For a fee of $5,000 a month, the firm promoted a positive image for Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma. The firm’s efforts paid off when American Vogue magazine published “A Rose in the Desert”, a fawning article about Asma, her British roots, designer fashions and good works.

ASMA

“Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert, Vogue.

The Vogue story praised the Assads as a “wildly democratic” family-focused couple who vacationed in Europe, fostered Christianity, were at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the “safest country in the Middle East,” and wanted to give Syria a “brand essence.”

American lobbying firms and so-called think tanks have shown time and time again that they have no compunction about fronting for vile foreign donors or representing foreign countries trying to minimize criticism of their human rights abuses or advance positions potentially inimical to American interests.

 

At least 77 U.S. firms have represented 170 governmental or pseudo-governmental entities of the Soviet Union/Russia trying to influence U.S. policy since 1950, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Early this year, the Egyptian government hired Washington, D.C.-based firm Weber Shandwick and then-subsidiary Cassidy & Associates to enhance public perception of Egypt and its intelligence agency.

EgyptSissi

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi

Since Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took office as president, the internal intelligence agency, Amn al-Watany, has lived up to its reputation for harassing veteran activists, worker organizations, professional unions and what remains of the student activist movement, according to World Politics Review, which analyzes critical global trends. Prominent dissidents—including iconic figures from the 2011 uprisings, such as the leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement—continue to be held in prisons or are subject to surveillance and control by the state security forces.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) governs registration of agents for foreign interests. In its 2017 FARA filings, BLJ Worldwide said it represents the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) a non-profit based in Hong Kong that describes itself as engaging in promoting relations and facilitating exchanges between China and the United States.

According to the filing, BLJ was very busy promoting China’s interests in the first half of 2017. The firm supported trips to China by reporters from all these U.S. media outlets: Slate; Quartz NFR; The Daily Beast; NBC News; Bloomberg; Businessweek; The New Yorker; The Des Moines Register; the Grand Rapids Free Press; the Chicago Tribune; and Independent Journal Review.

BLJ also hosted a dinner for representatives from CNN, Financial Times, the Economist, Associated Press, Bloomberg and CNBC.

AL-Monitor, which analyzes the trends shaping the future of the Middle East, won the 2017 Online Journalism Award for Explanatory Reporting for a series on how the Gulf States have been throwing money left and right in an effort to undercut Qatar in the eyes of President Donald Trump and undo Obama’s fledgling reconciliation with Iran.

According to Maplight, a non-profit which works to reveal the influence of money in politics, lobbyists for foreign interests gave more than $4.5 million to federal lawmakers and candidates during the 2016 election. Foreign lobbyists and their firms’ political action committees were also responsible for packaging a total of $5.9 million in donations for candidates and party committees, through an influence-enhancing tactic known as “bundling.”

Because the donations come from foreign governments’ U.S.-based lobbyists, they effectively circumvent American laws designed to bar direct foreign donations, Maplight reported. Under federal law, foreign nationals are prohibited from donating to any federal, state, or local campaigns, or political parties. But foreign governments frequently hire U.S. citizens to represent their interests, and those people face no such contribution ban.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, thinks he has a way to address all this. He wants to strengthen FARA. To that end, he has introduced legislation that would substantially increase FARA disclosure requirements.

But in my view the issue isn’t just disclosure. It’s also the willingness of American businesses to put the interests of foreign powers over those of the United States.

As citizens of the United States we should respect others and try to understand different viewpoints, but that doesn’t mean American lobbyists should take foreign money to advance the influence of foreign thugs and undermine U.S. interests.

Have they no shame?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Manafort Indictment: one charge is bogus

foreignagent

The Department of Justice unveiled indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort today (Oct. 30).

The indictment contains 12 counts. conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.

One charge in particular intrigued me, that Manafort acted as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal under the the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), enacted in 1938 to counter Nazi propagandists and amended in 1966 to regulate political and economic lobbyists.

The fact is FARA is a paper tiger, frequently ignored and rarely enforced.

FARA requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. There are about  2,000 foreign agents registered under the Act representing more than 100 countries.

The Center for Public Integrity released a study, “The hired guns who advocate for the world’s worst human rights abusers” – a research report that highlighted the PR firms that make the most money representing clients that violate human rights.

The study said FARA records revealed that “that the 50 countries with the worst human rights violation records have spent $168 million on American lobbyists and public relations specialists since 2010.”

The fact is, Washington, D.C. is packed with public relations professionals and lobbyists who work for foreign governments, many of them with reputations for corruption and human rights abuses.

Another fact is that the registration process under FARA  is often altogether ignored or treated as an afterthought, with many registrants filing retroactive registrations, or only supplying partial submissions.

An internal DoJ audit of the NSD’s enforcement and administration of FARA, conducted in 2016, found that only 23 percent of filings from 2013 to 2015 were filed on time—62 percent were submitted late.[6] Likewise, only 44 percent submitted their supplemental statements in a timely fashion, and 10 percent did not submit any follow-up supplemental materials.

“The Congress didn’t necessarily want to have a strong enforcement mechanism, ” said Kenneth Doyle, the Senior Editor for Bloomberg’s Money & Politics Report. ” There are principal reasons in terms of the First Amendment and not wanting to be too tough on people’s ability to petition the government, and then there are practical reasons of not wanting to be too tough on lobbyists who are important to the way that Washington works. I think they did it deliberately, saying, ‘Well, we’ll have a disclosure system, but it’s not going to have a strong enforcement mechanism and we’ll see what happens.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Manafort mess: I’m shocked, shocked!

casablanca-17

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!,” said Captain Renault in Casablanca, as a croupier handed him a pile of money.

I feel the same way about comments from political figures in the U.S., including Hillary Clinton, who have expressed astonishment and dismay over allegations that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, provided campaign assistance to Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was forced to flee from Ukraine to Russia in 2014 after violent several months of political crisis and violent protests.

I’m equally unsurprised by attempts to tar Manafort as a villain because he has lobbied in the U.S. for Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines

Hillary Clinton’s campaign leapt at the chance to draw blood. “Donald Trump has a responsibility to disclose campaign chair Paul Manafort’s and all other campaign employees’ and advisers’ ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities, including whether any of Trump’s employees or advisers are currently representing and or being paid by them,” said Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook.

Good grief. Everybody’s in such high dudgeon.

But wait a minute.

We’re not all rubes, as so many politicians and media outlets assume. We know that Washington, D.C. is packed with public relations professionals and lobbyists who work for foreign governments and special interests, many of them with reputations for corruption and human rights abuses.

Take John Podesta, the Chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

In 1988, he and his brother, Tony, founded Podesta Associates, Inc., a Washington, D.C., government relations and public affairs lobbying firm. The firm later changed its name to the Podesta Group, Inc.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, which works to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent, the Podesta Group has been a registered agent, or lobbyist, for a number of foreign governments, including the Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the National Security Council of Georgia, the Republic of Kosova, the Government of Albania and the Kingdom of Thailand.

In 2013, for example, the Podesta Group reported being paid $840,196.21 by the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The previous year, the corruption watchdog Transparency International awarded the crown of “Corrupt Person of the Year” to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “Despite its massive oil resources, … Azerbaijan is plagued by endemic corruption that prevents ordinary Azerbaijanis from sharing in their country’s natural wealth and is a significant barrier to Azerbaijan’s development,” the organization said.

That same year, public protests against human rights abuses led to brutal crackdowns, arrests, and undemocratic trials.

2013 was another awkward time for the Government of Azerbaijan when election authorities released vote results re-electing Aliyev – a full day before voting had even started. The announcement followed intimidation of activists and journalists and free speech restrictions.

Freedom House, a promoter of global human rights, lambasted the country’s government. “Azerbaijan is ruled by an authoritarian regime characterized by intolerance for dissent and disregard for civil liberties and political rights,” the organization said in 2013.

The federal  Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. There are about  2,000 foreign agents registered under the Act representing more than 100 countries.

Late last year, the Center for Public Integrity released a study, “The hired guns who advocate for the world’s worst human rights abusers” – a research report that highlighted the PR firms that make the most money representing clients that violate human rights.

The study said FARA records revealed that “that the 50 countries with the worst human rights violation records have spent $168 million on American lobbyists and public relations specialists since 2010.”

The study said the leader of the pack was Omnicom-owned Ketchum PR, which made $37 million representing human-rights violators, followed by Qorvis Communications/MSL Group at $20.6 Million dollars.

In 2013, Ketchum was behind a Vladimir Putin-led PR push tied to Syria. When the New York Times ran a highly visible op-ed about Syria submitted by Russian President Putin in Sept. 2013, Ketchum arranged it (and likely wrote it).

“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future,” Putin said. “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” The op-ed went on to say, “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force…”

According to ProPublica and Ketchum reports, Russia paid $1.3 million for Ketchum’s professional services for the period ended in May 2013.

In 2014, the New York Times reported how Angus Roxburgh, a former Ketchum consultant and journalist for the BBC and The Economist, recounted his experiences working with Ketchum. “The Russian officials…were initially convinced they could pay for better coverage, or intimidate journalists into it,” Roxburgh told the Times. “They were eventually persuaded to take reporters to dinner instead.”

According to the Times, Roxburgh told The Daily Beast that Ketchum’s aim “means helping them (Russia) disguise all the issues that make it unattractive: human rights, invasions of neighboring countries, etc.”

Last year, Saudi Arabia, under fire for human rights abuses, hired a cornucopia of U.S. PR/lobbying firms to tell its story in a favorable way and influence legislation.

In March, the Saudi Royal Embassy retained DLA Piper and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. That same month, it also hired Targeted Victory, which uses expansive data to put together digital campaigns for political clients, and Zignal Labs, which uses big data analytics, media monitoring and business intelligence to provide insights that drive public outreach efforts. In September 2015, the Saudi government expanded its efforts further by signing contracts with PR leviathan Edelman and the Podesta Group.

Just a few things to remember when attack dogs and establishment politicians, including Hillary Clinton, feign surprise and horror at amoral U.S. PR and lobbying firms doing business with foreign governments and foreign leaders with bad reputations.

Don’t be shocked.

 

Addendum

On 8/25/16, PoliticoPlaybook reported that the FBI and DOJ are looking into the Podesta Group’s work in Ukraine:

K STREET WATCH  The FBI and DOJ’s probes into the Podesta Group’s work for a non-profit tied to the former Ukrainian government are sending shockwaves downtown, where the investigation into the firm’s work for the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine has led to widespread nervousness. Reps from multiple firms who lobby for foreign entities think this might be a tipping point, and the feds might take a much broader look at other firms and clients. “It’s right in the purview of the DOJ – they don’t need a referral,” said one lobbyist.