28Pages.org has uncovered a striking example of lobbyists’ selective disclosure of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of their work against a law that enables 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the al Qaeda hijackers.
Specifically, lobbyists used two versions of a flyer that criticized the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA): An early version filed with the Department of Justice included a required disclosure of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship; a version later presented to military veterans did not.
The flyers were used in a late 2016 and early 2017 lobbying and public relations campaign managed by Qorvis MSLGROUP on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which sought to convince veterans that JASTA puts them and active duty service members in legal peril overseas. (See our detailed analysis of that misleading argument.)
The Qorvis program has triggered accusations of rampant misconduct—including the failure to inform veterans who were flown to Washington that they were brought there at Saudi expense to advance Saudi interests.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
In March, 28Pages.org reported lobbyists’ use of a flyer titled “The Real Impact of JASTA.” It was used in a variety of formats in the veterans campaign—on social media, as a printed handout, and as a PDF attached to emails.
The flyer was noteworthy not for what it said, but for what it didn’t: It lacked a “conspicuous statement” of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the effort, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). In March, the absence of the disclosure appeared to be a possible crime of omission—the failure to add the footnote, perhaps out of carelessness or ignorance of the law.
Now, anexamination of Saudi informational materials maintained in paper files at the DOJ’s FARA office in Washington raises questions about that interpretation, with the discovery of an earlier version of the flyer that included the required disclosure.
In accordance with FARA, Qorvis submitted the earlier version to the DOJ on Oct. 26, 2016. It included a prominent footnote with FARA-dictated language: “This is distributed by Qorvis MSLGROUP on behalf of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.”
Several veterans who were flown to Washington as part of the program have said they weren’t told it was orchestrated by Saudi Arabia. Many were outraged by the lack of transparency, and lobbyists’ reported failure to disclose the kingdom’s role was central to a formal complaint submitted to Attorney General Jeff Sessions by a group of 9/11 families and survivors.
Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss received the disclosure-less version of “The Real Impact of JASTA” via email when he was solicited for a trip to Washington by registered Saudi agent Connie Schmett. In a September interview with 28Pages.org, DeMoss accused Schmett of failing to inform him that she was working on behalf of the kingdom.
“If I’d have seen that (disclosure), I would have known that something is wrong. I would not have gone,” DeMoss says, citing the kingdom’s poor human rights record and suspicions of its involvement in 9/11. “I served for my countrymen in the Air Force, so why would I go and help Saudi Arabia?”
JASTA Opponent Claims Authorship
In an interview that preceded the discovery of the DOJ-filed version, political consultant Cole Azare told 28Pages.org that he wrote “The Real Impact of JASTA” after making his first few Saudi-financed trips to Washington and coming to the realization that they needed-leave behind material for their visits to congressional offices.
On those and subsequent trips, Navy veteran Azare served as a self-described volunteer team leader under the supervision of registered Saudi agent Jason Johns, a veteran who was one of the principal organizers of the Qorvis lobbying effort.
Azare’s first trips took place in November and early December of 2016. The modified “Real Impact of JASTA” flyer that was presented to veterans was clearly created in December: it includes a quote from Dec. 8 remarks by Senator John McCain, and Azare posted it to his personal Facebook page on Dec. 21. The next day, it was posted to Facebook by registered Saudi agent Eric Eisenhammer, who lives in California.
When interviewed again after the discovery of the DOJ-filed version of the flyer, Azare said that, upon further review of his records, he now recalls that he wrote it in September or October. He said a couple of his nearby “graphic arts friends” helped give it its professional appearance.
After creating it, Azare said, he shared it with someone in California who was working on the anti-JASTA campaign who then shared it with higher-ups at Qorvis. He declined to confirm that the Californian was Eisenhammer.
Azare said Qorvis must have decided to use the flyer itself, and to add the Saudi disclosure. He said he felt no obligation to put a disclosure on his work because he created the flyer of his own volition and wasn’t paid to do so.
When asked who created the modified, December version, Azare said, “By the time of Dec. 8, we had about 30 volunteer veterans working on this. One of them probably did it.”
Though now declaring he created the flyer in September or October, Azare stood by his account that it wasn’t used on the early lobbying trips. I asked him why that was so, if he had indeed already gone to the trouble of not only drafting a detailed piece but also engaging graphic designers to polish it.
“I realized I had it afterwards,” he said. “I originally wrote it just to make something up and then I found out that a friend was working on the project and…I sent it to him. And then, when I realized, ‘oh, shit, we need some stuff to bring to offices,’ I remembered that I had the files,” Azare said.
While Azare said he doesn’t know who created the December version, its first known appearance was on his personal Facebook page.
Via a follow-up email to Azare, I explained that some readers may doubt his account, concluding that Qorvis created “The Real Impact of JASTA” in October and that Azare modified it in December and removed the Saudi disclosure. I encouraged him to substantiate both his revised timeline and his claim of original authorship by sending me his original draft and by forwarding me the emails he used to share his work with the graphic designers and the California activist.
Azare replied that he wouldn’t have access to his laptop and its files for about a week. Since Azare uses Gmail and an iPhone, I explained it would be simple to find and forward the emails using the free Gmail app. He has not yet done so. He did, however, write, “You have a copy of a file. That does not negate my version of events; it only shows that a file was used with the disclaimers.”
Regardless of who originally wrote and later modified “The Real Impact of JASTA,” one question hangs heavy: If registered Saudi agent Qorvis decided it was appropriate to include the disclosure, why didn’t registered agent Jason Johns make the same decision when the flyer was used to funnel veterans into his operation and to shape their views?
Johns did not acknowledge an invitation to answer that question.
“People are more likely to second-guess something when it’s very clearly something that’s benefitting an interest outside the United States,” says Lydia Dennett, a national security and foreign influence investigator at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). “Maybe they didn’t want those people second-guessing it.”
Johns’ Wisconsin firm received $825,990 in fees and reimbursements for service to the kingdom.
Contradicted Claims About Use of Lobbying Material
Azare claimed that the Johns operation made it an ongoing practice to use leave-behind material, including “The Real Impact of JASTA”, in their lobbying visits to congressional offices. However, that conflicts with accounts from participating veterans who say no such material was provided to legislators or staffers:
- According to former Marine David Casler, organizers said, “We’re not allowed to leave any printed materials because there’s some requirements for that,” which could have been a reference to the FARA disclosure mandates.
- Army vet Scott Bartels said, “I remember them saying they didn’t really have the funds to print all this stuff up and hand it out.” He also said Azare actually denied Saudi Arabia was behind the operation on more than one occasion.
- Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss tells 28Pages.org, “(Azare) was my team leader and I never seen him leave anything behind.”
There’s no doubt, however, that “The Real Impact of JASTA” was used to recruit veterans and to shape their views of JASTA and what they said when lobbying. It was provided to many upon their arrival in Washington, and also used to convince others to travel there, according to documents shared by veterans and the recruitment email provided by DeMoss.
To Register or Not to Register
Although Azare served in an ongoing, informal leadership position in a campaign that he knew was being executed on behalf of Saudi Arabia, he maintains he was not obliged to register as a Saudi agent—because he received nothing from the kingdom beyond several free trips to the capital, to include airfare as well as lodging and meals at the Trump International DC.
FARA, however, makes no distinction between voluntary and paid work. “It’s very strictly not about compensation,” says POGO’s Dennett. “It’s specifically about who is controlling or supervising or benefitting from the activities.”
Azare said his messaging on JASTA wasn’t dictated by Saudi Arabia, and that Johns encouraged them to focus on what best served veterans. However, it seems clear that—by ushering veterans around Capitol Hill to sound alarms about JASTA and encourage legislators to open the law to amendments—he was accomplishing precisely what Saudi Arabia intended. (To this point, no amendments have been formally submitted.)
A spontaneous statement reportedly made by one of Azare’s fellow team leaders in the operation, Daniel Tinsley, underscores the notion that the organizers’ thinking was influenced by Saudi Arabia. According to Marine veteran Tim Cord, an intoxicated Tinsley emerged from a late-night discussion with a professional lobbyist at the Trump hotel and told him, “Aw, man I have such amazing news! We have a way to kill this bill! We found a way that if we cap the lawyer’s fees at five percent, no 9/11 victim’s family is ever going to be able to sue.”
Qorvis Quietly Collects
By all indications, neither Azare, Johns nor the other veterans who helped run the Trump hotel operation had prior experience working on a lobbying effort orchestrated by a foreign power, much less a firm command of what FARA required of them. Since they were the most exposed leaders of the veterans effort, however, their actions had far more witnesses and have faced far more direct scrutiny than has the conduct of Qorvis MSLGROUP—the firm that drew them into the Saudi web and its accompanying legal risks and moral complications.
Perhaps someday, in a Senate hearing, Qorvis executives will be grilled on their oversight of the scandalous Saudi campaign that exploited military veterans, and specifically on their manifest failure to ensure compliance with foreign lobbying law.
Meanwhile, Qorvis continues to contentedly rake in Saudi cash. Its most recently reported royal payment exceeded $6.2 million.