DOJ Fails to Pursue Allegations of Saudi Lobbying Misconduct

DOJ Fails to Pursue Allegations of Saudi Lobbying Misconduct

In March 2017, a group of 9/11 families presented the Department of Justice with 17 pages of detailed allegations that Qorvis Communications had, on behalf of Saudi Arabia, conducted a lobbying campaign against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) characterized by extensive violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

In the worst instance, veterans who were flown to Washington to lobby against the measure say Qorvis withheld the fact that it was bringing them to Capitol Hill to advance the Saudi agenda, and that the kingdom was paying for their airfare, lodging and meals.

Eighteen months after 9/11 families filed their formal complaint, there’s no indication any investigation ever took place. “It’s one of the most deceptive campaigns that any foreign lobbying operation has ever done, and yet there’s been no punishment whatsoever,” says Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.

Justice Department national security spokesman Marc Raimondi declined to comment.

Meanwhile, a recent revelation by a retired FBI counterintelligence agent offers yet another indication of a systemic DOJ tendency to put protection of the kingdom’s reputation ahead of the pursuit of justice.

Veterans Tricked into Lobbying for the Kingdom

In September 2016, Congress enacted JASTA by overriding President Obama’s veto. Saudi Arabia then unleashed a massive campaign aimed at amending the law, which cleared the way for 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for financial and logistical support allegedly provided by government officials.

That campaign tapped many firms in Saudi Arabia’s formidable influence arsenal, but the claims of misconduct focus on the kingdom’s flagship lobbying and public relations firm: Qorvis Communications, a subsidiary of MSLGROUP.

Facing Americans’ deep sympathy for 9/11 families, Saudi Arabia and Qorvis sought a sympathetic face of their own for their campaign to weaken JASTA, and found it in U.S. military veterans.

Saudi Arabia, Qorvis and the kingdom’s allies in U.S. government–most notably, senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham—pushed a coordinated campaign built on the claim that, if JASTA were allowed to stand, U.S. service members and veterans going back as far as the Vietnam War would be exposed to lawsuits abroad.

That’s false, according to William S. Dodge, former counselor on international law at the State Department. “JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts. JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals,” Dodge told 28Pages.org last year.   

Though empty, the claim proved all too effective in creating alarm among well-intentioned veterans recruited via a grassroots campaign carried out by scores of political consultants across the country.

Many were persuaded to sign group letters to Congress or send individual messages of their own. Some agreed to put their names on op-ed pieces printed in newspapers around the country that used identical language.

Qorvis appears to have used a bounty system, with the highest reward given for persuading veterans to travel to Washington. In an email pitch to veterans, Saudi agent Shelbi Lewark wrote, “You don’t have to know anything about JASTA…They will be putting you in the Trump hotel, which is incredibly nice…It’s an awesome trip and basically like a 5 star vacation.”

Offered the chance for a free trip to the nation’s capital to work alongside fellow veterans for a cause they believed to be noble, upwards of two hundred or more leapt at the opportunity over a period of months.

Many were in for a terrible surprise, telling 28Pages.org they didn’t find out the kingdom was pulling the strings until they’d already started making the rounds on Capitol Hill. Several say organizers didn’t merely conceal Saudi Arabia’s role, but actively denied it.

Victimized Veterans Ask: Where’s the Investigation?

In a series of articles published here last year, veterans expressed outrage over the fraud perpetrated upon them by Qorvis and its hired hands.

Now, well over a year after they spoke out about the Saudi-Qorvis scam, three of the veterans lured into the Saudi web want to know why the Justice Department hasn’t contacted them or taken any other discernible action.

“The government not in some way looking into this just raises all kinds of red flags as to where their loyalties are,” says T.J. Hermesman, a Marine veteran who deployed to Afghanistan.

“One part of me feels like it’s fucking crazy. The other part of me says it’s business as usual,” says David Casler, a former Marine who deployed to Iraq. “Our geopolitical relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is such that they can pretty much get away with anything and everything.”

Hermesman says the DOJ is sending the wrong message to Saudi Arabia and other foreign governments. “If there’s no response whatsoever, it’s going to show the door’s wide open,” he says.

Noting that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was charged under FARA in the Mueller probe while the sprawling Saudi lobbying scandal has gone completely uninvestigated, lawyer and retired Army officer Lorraine Barlett says selective prosecution “politicizes the legal system, undermines the rule of law nationwide and promotes disobedience.”

“To me, it falls on the hands of senators and Congress,” says Casler. “Why aren’t they asking for an investigation into this? We walked up on their doorstep and they were pretty much blatantly lied to. You would figure they would be the most pissed off and say ‘Ok, we have an American company operating as pretty much a rogue agent for a foreign government. Why aren’t we investigating them, penalizing them, making sure this doesn’t happen again?’”

Qorvis Condemned

The veterans remain indignant over their treatment at the hands of Qorvis, which is on a $279,500 monthly Saudi retainer and received $6.2 million from the kingdom during the six-month period that encompassed most of the veterans lobbying program.

“Where do they come from to think that’s an OK idea to use veterans like that?” asks Hermesman.

While Saudi Arabia has a well-established reputation for ruthlessness, the veterans find Qorvis’s conduct all the more galling considering most or all of the firm’s executives and employees are their fellow Americans.

If he met the architects of the Qorvis scam, Hermesman says he’d ask, “How does it feel to completely lose your loyalty and not only go against your own country but go so far as to use young war veterans? It’s a pretty crazy level of disrespect and disloyalty.”

“It’s absolutely reprehensible,” says Barlett, who was brought to Washington by Qorvis-affiliated Capitol Media Group. “It’s unbelievable that they would stoop that low. They obviously have no shame and they’re willing to push the envelope as far as they can push it. They have no moral compunction about exploiting a group of citizens who would otherwise be deemed worthy of respect.”

Campaign Used Unregistered Agents

If the DOJ were to investigate the Qorvis campaign, they would likely find the firm ran roughshod over a variety of FARA requirements.

For starters, those working on behalf of a foreign government are required to register with the DOJ as agents of that government; many involved in the sprawling campaign against JASTA did not. Failure to register can trigger fines of up to $10,000 and prison terms of up to five years.

To take one apparent example of an unregistered agent on the Qorvis campaign, consider political consultant Elliott Schwartz. A partner at QE Intelligence, Schwartz previously ran the war room for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and was director of research for the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC.

According to Army veteran Barlett, Schwartz made travel arrangements, emailed an itinerary of activities, met veterans at their hotel and accompanied them to Capitol Hill. However, he does not appear in a search of the DOJ database of foreign agents.

Similarly, veterans have identified three individuals—Daniel Tinsley, Dustin Tinsley and Cole Azare—who helped organize and lead a veterans lobbying operation led by registered agent Jason Johns. None of the three registered with the Justice Department.

FARA’s registration requirement applies regardless of whether one’s efforts are compensated. Thus, had the campaign been operated with required transparency, it would seem that each of the hundreds of volunteer veterans should have registered too. Of course, had Qorvis told them they’d have to register as an agent of Saudi Arabia, the program’s true objectives would have been revealed and most wouldn’t have signed on in the first place.

The Justice Department also seems to have tolerated non-compliance that should be readily apparent to its staff: Capitol Media Group has failed to file the twice-yearly supplemental reports required under its status as a “primary registrant,” and the firm’s owner, Scott Wheeler, himself appears to have never registered as an individual agent despite having disclosed his role in the veterans lobbying scheme in his firm’s filing.

Recruiting Materials Lacked Required Disclosures

FARA requires that written materials used to advance the agenda of a foreign government include a conspicuous disclosure that the material is being distributed for that government.

Not only was the disclosure lacking on some materials—it appears to have been removed from a flyer used to persuade veterans that JASTA posed a risk to service members.

Qorvis filed the flyer with the Justice Department on October 26, 2016. Titled “The Real Impact of JASTA,” it included the required disclosure.

A nearly-identical version was later used to recruit veterans to the cause—on social media, as a printed handout and as a PDF attached to emails.

The only difference: The FARA-required disclosure had gone missing.

Upon their arrival in Washington, veterans who lobbied in the Jason Johns operation received a detailed, six-page set of instructions and guidance modeled after a military operations order. It disclosed that Qorvis and Advocacy Group, Inc were supporting the undertaking, but did not disclose that the two organizations and Jason Johns were working for Saudi Arabia.

Some Saudi agents, such as former Maryland GOP communications director Chevy Weiss, used Facebook as a recruiting tool, but failed to disclose their Saudi sponsorship on their posts or their profiles—another FARA violation.

A federal investigation may uncover still more. For example, were the veterans listed on three group letters to Congress (pages 6, 12 and 19 here) urging that JASTA be amended told that their names were being solicited on behalf of Saudi Arabia?

Some Qorvis Victims Likely Remain in the Dark

Importantly, an investigation would also be a means of enlightening participating veterans who still haven’t found out the real reason they were flown to Washington to oppose JASTA.

When Capitol Media Group filed its months-late registration, it declared that it had brought scores of veterans to Washington to lobby and offered to provide “individual names if requested.”

28Pages.org made repeated requests to the Justice Department’s FARA section requesting it to direct Capitol Media Group to produce the names via a supplementary disclosure filing. Though an aide to Senate majority whip and judiciary committee member John Cornyn also followed up on the request, no names have been disclosed by Capitol Media Group or Qorvis.

FBI Tells Retired Agent Not to Aid 9/11 Case: Saudi Relations Come First

Inattention to the Saudi-Qorvis scandal isn’t the only indication that the Justice Department puts the interests of Saudi Arabia above those of American citizens.

As 28Pages.org was first to report in August, retired FBI counterintelligence agent Kenneth Williams said the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel told him not to cooperate with 9/11 victims’ attorneys pursuing the civil suit against Saudi Arabia enabled by JASTA.

According to Williams, an FBI attorney “said they didn’t want me to cooperate with the plaintiffs’ attorneys because it could impact other pending litigation involving the United States government…and because…the Trump administration was trying to develop good relations with the Saudi government.”

It’s not clear what “other pending litigation” the FBI attorney was referring to; Williams considers the possibility it may have been a bluff. If not, it seems a likely reference to Freedom of Information Act suits filed by investigative news outlet Florida Bulldog, seeking documents relating to FBI investigations of Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks.

After several guilt-ridden months of complying with the FBI’s directive, Williams decided to follow his conscience and began communicating with the attorneys. Former Senate intelligence committee chair Bob Graham called the FBI’s attempted intervention “a fundamental assault on the principle of democracy.”

Enabling Bad Saudi Behavior

Reflecting on the Justice Department’s action with Ken Williams and inaction regarding Qorvis, the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative’s Freeman says, “It’s part of this larger pattern of enabling Saudi bad behavior, whether it’s from the government of Saudi Arabia or its lobbyists here. They continue to do things that are harmful to Americans and not get punished for it and, ultimately, we see a Saudi Arabia that feels emboldened enough to kill a Washington Post journalist on foreign soil.”

For Saudi-victimized veteran and attorney Barlett, the Justice Department’s conduct is cause for alarm among all Americans: “If you don’t enforce the law, you destroy the rule of law writ large. The DOJ is supposed to be the top federal agency for law enforcement, supporting the rule of law and the Constitution. When a body like that is corrupted, the fish rots from the head down, and therefore it’s going to impact the entire legal system.”

Reprinted from 28pages.org.

Senate, House Measures Urge Release of 9/11 Documents

Senate, House Measures Urge Release of 9/11 Documents

As the world marks the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, legislators have introduced resolutions in both the House and Senate urging the broad declassification of U.S. government documents relating to the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

As with the successful drive to declassify 28 pages on Saudi government links to the 9/11 attacks, this latest effort has support on both sides of the aisle.

At a press conference announcing the Senate effort, Senator Richard Blumenthal, flanked by 9/11 families, said, “This is a nonpartisan issue. Forget about if you’re a Republican, if you’re a Democrat, if you’re independent—this is a humanity issue. These are human beings that got savagely murdered on September 11 and there should be no partisan politics involved in this at all.”

Among others joining the Connecticut Democrat on the Senate resolution are two senior Republicans: majority whip John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

Secrecy is an Impediment to Justice

The continued classification 9/11 documents is a headwind for a civil suit by victims of the attacks seeking to prove that Saudi government officials provided financial and other assistance to hijackers and others closely associated with them.

Brett Eagleson, whose father was killed at the World Trade Center, has been actively involved in building congressional support for additional declassification. “It seems to us that the rights of enemies and terrorists are coming before the rights of U.S. citizens,” he said at the Blumenthal press conference. “There are literally thousands and thousands of documents that are still redacted for no reason whatsoever.”

Read the rest at 28pages.org.

Exclusive: FBI Told Former Agent Not to Help 9/11 Victims Build Case Against Saudi Arabia

Exclusive: FBI Told Former Agent Not to Help 9/11 Victims Build Case Against Saudi Arabia

A retired FBI counterterrorism agent with a notable role in the story of 9/11 says the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel told him not to cooperate with attorneys representing 9/11 victims in their suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, because it could harm U.S.-Saudi relations.

In an exclusive interview with 28Pages.org, Kenneth Williams, author of an ignored July 2001 memo warning that Osama bin Laden may be training pilots in the United States, explains why he has now decided to ignore the FBI’s instructions, and illustrates how the failure to share critical information continued into the 9/11 investigation—possibly to the benefit of the kingdom.

FBI Priority: Protecting U.S.-Saudi Relationship

The 9/11 plaintiffs—family members, survivors and insurers—allege that officials of the Saudi government provided financial, logistical and other support to the perpetrators of the attacks.

After being contacted by their attorneys in October of last year, Williams notified the FBI legal counsel in Phoenix, where he spent his career. Days later, he received a call from an attorney at the Office of the General Counsel whose name he does not recall.

Read the rest at 28pages.org.

Iowa Governor Seeks Review of Officials Who Worked for Saudis

Iowa Governor Seeks Review of Officials Who Worked for Saudis

Ethics board to investigate Kim and Connie Schmett’s work for Saudi Arabia while they served in Iowa government

Governor Kim Reynolds

Iowa governor Kim Reynolds yesterday announced that her office has asked the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board to review the case of two current state officials who did political work for Saudi Arabia at the same time they held important government positions.

Connie Schmett and her husband Kim Schmett earned $101,500 working for Saudi Arabia against a federal law that cleared the way for 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the September 11 plot.

The governor’s move follows original reporting by 28Pages.org, followed by Associated Press, that Connie Schmett allegedly used deceit to persuade Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss to travel to Washington and lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).

Governor: Saudi Work a Conflict of Interest

Reynolds’ predecessor, governor Terry Branstad, appointed Connie Schmett to the Health Facilities Council and the Cultural Trust Board of Trustees, and Kim Schmett to the Employment Appeal Board, which he chairs. He earns $80,000 a year in that role.

At a press conference, Reynolds told reporters she didn’t think state employees should be permitted to work for foreign governments. “If you’re working for the state, or a public official, it would be a conflict of interest to serve in that capacity,” she said. “I think it’s something that the legislature needs to look at. It appears that it’s possibly a loophole in the statute.”

Connie Schmett

Asked if she was “ok” with what the Schmetts did, Reynolds said she had no power to immediately remove the Schmetts from their posts. “The Schmetts don’t serve at the pleasure of the governor. They serve a set term and that’s determined by statute,” she said.

The Schmetts, who are powerful players in Iowa Republican politics, hosted a $75 per person fundraiser for Reynolds on Sept. 20. A reporter asked if Reynolds had been aware of their work for Saudi Arabia at the time. “No, I was not,” she replied.

The governor acknowledged having received a $100 donation from the couple. Reynolds said she would forego a decision on possibly returning the money until after she’s received the results of the ethics investigation.

Reynolds distanced herself from what Saudi Arabia was seeking to accomplish in its massive lobbying effort: preventing 9/11 families from proceeding with their suit. “I don’t agree with that,” she said.

Yesterday, Bleeding Heartland reported that Kim Schmett failed to make a required disclosure of political contributions when he registered with the Department of Justice as a Saudi agent.

Kim Schmett

Attempting to defend his work against 9/11 victims and for a dictatorial monarchy that is far and away the world’s principal exporter of terror, Schmett told Bleeding Heartland, “I’m not representing someone who’s un-American.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Foley of Associated Press reported that Kim Schmett failed to disclose his Iowa government position on the same registration. Earlier, we learned that Connie Schmett failed to reveal her work for the kingdom on her 2016 Iowa financial disclosure.

When I called Connie Schmett in September before publishing the story that would ultimately lead to this week’s announcement of an ethics investigation, she attempted to prevent my reporting through intimidation—specifically, with threats of baseless litigation. She told me, “I do not give you permission to write an article about me and if you do, you will hear from my lawyer. You’ll be sued!”

“I’ll be in BIG trouble!”

Veteran DeMoss said Schmett never informed him that she was working on behalf of the Saudi government, nor that that kingdom would be paying for his airfare and lodging at the pricey Trump International DC. “I understand the reason she couldn’t be honest and upfront, because if she had been, I wouldn’t have gone on (the trip),” said DeMoss.

He didn’t learn that Saudi Arabia was orchestrating the entire effort until he was in Washington, where he and dozens of other veterans had been brought to lobby members of Congress.

When DeMoss later confronted Schmett with new-found knowledge of her registration as a foreign agent, she begged him to keep it secret. “PLEASE don’t share it. I’ll be in BIG trouble!” she wrote in a Facebook message.

With this week’s developments, it appears “big trouble” has arrived.

A Strange Twist of Fate?

That trouble may have all started with a bizarre case of mistaken identity, as Connie Schmett sought military veterans to volunteer for the Saudi-backed campaign to weaken JASTA.

Dustin DeMoss of Oklahoma During His Air Force Days

Her recruitment of Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss began with a Dec. 20, 2016 email that opened with “very good visiting with you yesterday.” DeMoss, who lives in Oklahoma, was perplexed: He said he’d had no previous contact with her.

There is, believe it or not, another veteran named Dustin DeMoss. He’s a retired Army NCO in Knoxville, Iowa and he’s “friends” with Connie Schmett on Facebook. (The Oklahoma DeMoss said Schmett said she was related to DeMoss’s.)

Did Schmett somehow mistype the email address of one Dustin DeMoss and—against all odds—accidentally recruit another Dustin DeMoss who just happened to be a military veteran? If so, at the time she must have thought it a wild stroke of lucrative luck.

Now that the Oklahoman’s disturbing account has directly led to Connie Schmett’s embarrassment of the Republican governor, bad press in local, state and national media, and a high-profile ethics investigation of herself and her spouse, she surely doesn’t think that today.

Reprinted with permission from 28 Pages.

Document Exposes Inconsistent Disclosure of Saudi Hand in Campaign Against JASTA

Document Exposes Inconsistent Disclosure of Saudi Hand in Campaign Against JASTA

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.

Version presented to vets

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.

Earlier Version Filed with Department of Justice

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.

Cole Azare

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.

Eric Eisenhammer

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.”

Lydia Dennett of the Project on Government Oversight

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.

From left: Dustin Tinsley, Cole Azare, Jason Johns, Daniel Tinsley 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.

Senate Campaign Faces Scrutiny of Strategist’s Work for Saudis

Senate Campaign Faces Scrutiny of Strategist’s Work for Saudis

Boston Herald spotlights Holly Robichaud’s engagement in Saudi effort to amend Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act

On defensive, Robichaud advances misleading argument about JASTA, makes false claim about VFW, American Legion stances

Holly Robichaud

A U.S. Senate campaign faces controversy after the Boston Herald published a story on a key strategist’s participation in a Saudi lobbying campaign against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).

Massachusetts state representative Geoffrey Diehl, who is running for the 2018 Republican nomination to oppose incumbent senator Elizabeth Warren, hired Holly Robichaud to serve as a campaign strategist. 28Pages.org previously reported that Robichaud, a political consultant and columnist for the Boston Herald, registered in October 2016 as an agent of the Saudi government.

JASTA cleared the way for 9/11 victims and insurers to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the September 11 attacks. Robichaud was among some 70 political influencers across the nation pressed into service by Qorvis MSLGroup as the firm scrambled to unleash a broad attack on JASTA on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

A Sensitive Subject

Given Saudi Arabia’s apparent goal of preventing 9/11 families from presenting evidence against the kingdom in a court of law, Robichaud’s work could be an especially sensitive topic in Massachusetts: The two planes that terrorists used to strike the World Trade Center departed from Boston’s Logan Airport, and more than 200 Massachusetts residents died that day.

Logan Airport 9/11 Memorial

In the most controversial aspect of the Saudi lobbying campaign, veterans were given expenses-paid trips to Washington to lobby against JASTA. Many say they weren’t told Saudi Arabia was orchestrating their participation; some were outraged to learn they had become unwitting agents of the kingdom in its effort to thwart the lawsuit filed by 9/11 victims.

When asked by the Herald about her participation in the Saudi campaign, Robichaud said she did not keep veterans in the dark about the kingdom’s sponsorship of her work. (If you’re a veteran and were solicited by Holly Robichaud or anyone else to pressure Congress to amend JASTA, we want to hear from you: info@28pages.org)

Senate candidate Diehl seemed to gloss over the specific nature of Robichaud’s work for Saudi Arabia. “She’s worked on many campaigns in the past,” Diehl told the Herald’s Jack Encarnacao. “The work that I’ve done with her…makes her someone who I trust to help in this campaign, and I think that’s where my focus is.”

Misleading Argument

Defending her participation, Robichaud told the Herald that JASTA “opens the door for our military members…being sued.”

That claim of peril to service members and veterans was central to the Saudi-Qorvis campaign—and according to a former counselor on international law at the State Department, it’s false.

JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts. JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals,” said William S. Dodge, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law in a February interview with 28Pages.org.

Baseless Claim of VFW, American Legion Stances on JASTA

The Herald also quoted Robichaud as saying “the work was strictly on the same position as the American Legion and VFW.”

Asked by 28Pages.org if Veterans of Foreign Wars supported changes to JASTA, VFW spokesperson Randi Law says, “No. The VFW did not take an official stance on this.”

The American Legion’s Joe Plenzer tells 28Pages.org that when his organization takes a position on an issue, it usually does so through a formal resolution. “I checked our resolutions and found no resolution on JASTA,” he says. “I also checked with our legislative director and we have no letters of support on file for this issue.”

Update: Appearing on Boston’s WRKO radio on Thursday, Robichaud repeated the false claim about the VFW and American Legion, as did host Jeff Kuhner.

Saudi Campaign Faces Allegations of Criminal Acts

The Herald story noted that “some vets who were active on the bill went on to complain publicly that they weren’t told who was paying the political consultants who were helping them exert the Congressional pressure.”

Allegations about the Saudi lobbying effort, however, are even more serious than the Herald indicated, and include a wide range of possible criminal violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000.

In March, a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice, seeking a national security investigation into the Saudi campaign. The complaint identified many apparent FARA violations, including:

  • The failure to add disclosures of Saudi sponsorship to informational materials and recruiting communications
  • The failure of people working on behalf of Saudi Arabia to register as foreign agents
  • The failure to fully disclose to the DOJ all expenditures made on behalf of Saudi Arabia
  • The failure to submit reports outlining specific lobbying activities
  • The failure to file informational materials used in the campaign

Compensation Unknown

The Herald reported that Robichaud earned $12,000 in the campaign. However, that’s the amount she wrote on the form she used to initially register with the DOJ as an agent of the kingdom last October. A post-campaign report filed by Qorvis shows that many participants received far more than they’d projected on their registrations; some earned less.

Senate Candidate Geoff Diehl

It appears agents’ compensation was transactional—for example, awarding a certain amount for persuading a veteran to write a letter to Congress and a higher reward for convincing one to travel to Washington.

Robichaud’s name is not on that Qorvis disclosure. That could indicate she was paid by an intermediary firm that was paid by Qorvis and Saudi Arabia.

Update: On Facebook, Robichaud is “friends” with Patrick Hynes. His firm, Hynes Communications in New Hampshire, worked for the Saudi campaign and received $56,000. Hynes is also a partner at Novus Public Affairs, which received $128,750 for its work for the kingdom.

Other firms in the region that were hired to serve Saudi Arabia include Advocacy Solutions in Rhode Island and Eaton River Strategies in Maine.

There’s no indication yet of what specific actions Robichaud performed in the Saudi lobbying drive. In addition to recruiting veterans to fly to Washington, others in similar roles urged veterans to email or phone legislators or to add their names to “open letters” to Congress.

Lobbyists also facilitated the placement of opinion pieces in newspapers—some of which used identical paragraphs with different veteran “authors” on the bylines. One such identically-worded opinion was expressed in a letter to the editor of the Concord (NH) Monitor submitted by Ken Georgevits of Concord.

Vet Says Iowa Official Deceived Him Into Lobbying in Saudi Drive Against 9/11 Law

Vet Says Iowa Official Deceived Him Into Lobbying in Saudi Drive Against 9/11 Law

  • Veteran’s claim: Connie Schmett recruited him to lobby for changes to JASTA, but didn’t disclose Saudi sponsorship of the effort
  • A gubernatorial appointee to two state boards, Schmett’s endorsement is sought by national presidential candidates
  • Schmett registered with the DOJ as an agent of the kingdom; Schmett & Associates received $101,500 for services rendered

Connie Schmett, a notable figure in Iowa GOP politics and an appointee to two state government boards, recruited a military veteran to travel to Washington to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)—and he says she withheld the fact that Saudi Arabia was behind the campaign.

In October 2016, Schmett and her husband, Kim, registered with the Department of Justice as agents of the Saudi government working for changes to JASTA under the supervision of lobbying firm Qorvis MSLGROUP. According to a Qorvis disclosure filing, Schmett & Associates received $101,500 for service to the kingdom.

Connie Schmett (Facebook photo)

In an interview with 28Pages.org, Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss of Tulsa, Oklahoma also says Schmett counseled him against revealing his involvement via social media or talking to journalists and, after DeMoss learned of her status as a registered agent of the Saudi government, asked him not to share that information because she would “be in big trouble.”

Saudi Campaign Against Anti-Terror Law

Enacted in September 2016 over President Obama’s veto, JASTA modified the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow U.S. victims of terror attacks on American soil to sue foreign governments for aiding the perpetrators. The change removed a barrier that had prevented 9/11 families, survivors and insurers from suing Saudi Arabia for its alleged support of the hijackers.

Facing enormous liability claims and potential embarrassment, the Saudi government waged a furious lobbying effort to prevent JASTA’s passage, followed by an even more intense—but, thus far, fruitless—campaign to alter the law through amendments championed by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

The Schmetts were among more than 70 political influencers from across the nation urgently pressed into service by Qorvis, one of many firms engaged by the kingdom to execute a multi-pronged lobbying and public relations attack on the new law.

The Pentagon on 9/11

The most extraordinary facet of the campaign was a Qorvis-led program that turned some military veterans into unwitting agents of the Saudi government, as lobbyists provided an estimated 150 to 250 veterans with all-expenses-paid trips to Washington to lobby in person, without always disclosing who was behind it.

To recruit veterans to the anti-JASTA cause, lobbyists told them U.S. service members and veterans—even those who served in Vietnam—could face lawsuits in foreign courts if other countries retaliated with their own versions of JASTA.

Though that argument was also embraced by President Obama and a variety of establishment officials keen on preserving the status quo in U.S.-Saudi relations, it’s at odds with JASTA’s actual language, according to William S. Dodge, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law and a former counselor on international law at the State Department

In a February interview, Dodge told 28Pages.org that JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts. JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals.”

Excerpt from Connie Schmett’s FARA Registration

DeMoss says Schmett presented the troops-in-peril rationale, and that he didn’t find out until he’d been flown to Washington that the kingdom was orchestrating the campaign. Many other veterans recruited by other Saudi agents have provided similar accounts.

In March, a group of 9/11 family members and survivors lodged a complaint with the Department of Justice, seeking a criminal investigation of Qorvis and its scores of foreign agents for a variety of possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), including the failure to disclose Saudi Arabia’s hand in the campaign and the failure of many involved in the effort to register as agents of the kingdom.

Texas Senator John Cornyn used a July hearing of the Senate judiciary committee to condemn the campaign, saying, “This kind of conduct should gall every member of the Senate.”

A Center of Influence in Iowa Politics

In Des Moines, the Schmetts provide lobbying services under the brand of Schmett & Associates. According to Kim Schmett’s LinkedIn page, the firm “specializes in high level grass roots and grass tops public advocacy services as well as federal lobbying activities.”

Connie Schmett serves on two Iowa government boards: the Health Facilities Council and the Iowa Cultural Trust Board of Trustees. She was appointed to bothposts by then-governor Terry Branstad; she had previously served on his staff for eight years.

Connie Schmett (center), Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (left) and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (Facebook)

Schmett was a member of the Iowa leadership team for Scott Walker’s 2016 presidential campaign. When Walker withdrew, Schmett endorsed Chris Christie after the New Jersey governor tenaciously courted her and her husband with phone calls and a 45-minute meeting in his hotel room.

Last year, Schmett organized one of the largest caucuses in the state, an event that drew some 1,000 participants and personal appearances by Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson.

On Facebook, Schmett is “friends” with two other figures linked to the Saudi lobbying campaign: Wes Farno of Minster, Ohio and David Niffenegger of Des Moines. Farno registered as a Saudi agent and received $76,800.

In a search of the FARA database, Niffenegger does not appear as a registered Saudi agent, despite the fact that Marine veterans Daniel and Tim Cord say he recruited them to lobby on Capitol Hill. Along with fellow Marine David Casler, the Cords were first to reveal that some vets who were flown to Washington to lobby against JASTA were kept in the dark about Saudi Arabia’s role.

A larger Des Moines firm, LS2group, also worked for the Saudi-Qorvis campaign against JASTA, earning $76,500. Though it’s unclear if Schmett coordinated her Saudi work with the firm, Schmett is friends on Facebook with LS2group partner Charles Larson, who was appointed as ambassador to Latvia by President George W. Bush.

“She didn’t tell me who was behind it”

Air Force veteran DeMoss, who performed maintenance on F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter jets, says Schmett first contacted him on December 20 via email.

DeMoss (3rd from Left) and Other Veterans with Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn

Though it began with “very good visiting with you yesterday,” DeMoss says he’d had no previous discussion with her and theorizes that she’d confused him with another veteran who has the same name. (He says Schmett told him she has relatives named DeMoss and she repeatedly emphasized their supposed kinship in building rapport with him.) He’s still unsure how she obtained his email address.

DeMoss shared the email with 28Pages.org. In it, Schmett said she “attached information about our project in protecting our military as well as other Americans on foreign soil.” The attached documents were titled “The Plan to Fix JASTA” and “The Real Impact of JASTA.” FARA requires that informational materials used to advance the agenda of a foreign government have a conspicuous statement that names the country behind the effort. Neither document had such a notice.

Schmett with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (left) and Iowa Congressman Steve King (Facebook)

In addition to offering him a choice of dates for a free trip to Washington to lobby against JASTA, Schmett also used the message to urge DeMoss to send emails to “five or six” legislators, and to blind copy her when he did so.

DeMoss says something was missing, though, from this and other communications from Schmett. “She didn’t tell me who was behind it or anything like that,” he says.

“I understand the reason she couldn’t be honest and upfront, because if she had been, I wouldn’t have gone on it,” DeMoss says.

On a phone call from Schmett that followed her email, DeMoss says Schmett assured him, “You’ll have fun! You’ll fly first class and stay at the Trump hotel.”

Using Twitter to research JASTA, DeMoss says he noticed many tweets on the topic were written in Arabic, which led him to wonder what he was becoming involved in.

“I knew something was up, but I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t connect all the dots,” says DeMoss. Despite his suspicions, he decided to proceed with the trip. “I thought, if this is really bad, I can help out the other side.”

DeMoss signed up for a Jan. 10 to 13 “fly-in”—the term organizers used to describe trips that brought dozens of veterans at a time to Washington, where they stayed at the Trump International DC.

Jason Johns

A few days before his travel, DeMoss received an email from Jason Johns, a veteran and registered Saudi agent who has been identified as the principal leader of the Trump hotel operation (as distinguished from a similar Qorvis veterans operation run by Scott Wheeler). Attached was a five-page, military-style “operations order” that exhaustingly laid out every detail of the week’s activities—except for any disclosure of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship.

The document indicated that approximately 50 veterans would target, among others, “House & Senate Leadership, Chairs and Ranking Members of Armed Services, Foreign Affairs/Relations, Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.”

The section on “Friendly Forces” did not include the Saudi government. Legislators, meanwhile, were categorized as “Enemy Forces.”

“We don’t want any leaks coming out”

DeMoss says Schmett urged him to maintain secrecy about the trip. In a Facebook message he captured and provided to 28Pages.org, she wrote,

“Please be careful what you post on FB. You’re doing security work and we don’t want any leaks coming out.”

“I guess she thought she would get found out if I got found out,” he says.

Similar to observations by others, DeMoss says the on-site leaders of the veterans lobbying effort were Jason Johns, Cole Azare and brothers Dustin and Daniel Tinsley, all of whom are veterans.

From Left: Dustin DeMoss, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, Frank Vassar

 

DeMoss says Azare was a participant in an eyebrow-raising exchange he observed during an Uber ride to Capitol Hill with another Oklahoma veteran, Frank Vassar.

Paraphrasing the conversation, DeMoss says Vassar asked, “Hey, Cole, you know who’s paying for this, right?” He says Azare replied, “Yeah, we’ve got to keep it on the down-low.”

As they arrived at their destination, DeMoss says he asked for clarity: “I said something like, ‘Why don’t you tell me who it is? I can keep things on the down low.” He says the question went unanswered.

Vassar did not respond to an invitation to comment on DeMoss’s description of the conversation. Azare, a political consultant and veterans advocate in Reno, did. “I would say the statement is patently false,” he says.

“I would remember something like that,” he continues. “I remember that Vassar and him, we were working together that day. There was no conversation where Frank Vassar asked who was paying for it or anything like that. And there was no conversation where I would say keep something on the down-low when (the Saudi role) was publicly stated to him.”

Cole Azare

Azare says Johns always made it a point to tell veterans at a dinner on the opening night—which served as an orientation to the week’s activities—that Qorvis had organized the operation on behalf of Saudi Arabia, just in case they hadn’t been told earlier in their recruitment. He claims it was repeated at other times as an extra measure of caution.

Other veterans, however, have previously told 28Pages.org that Johns and Azare each went beyond merely withholding information about Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of their venture to actively denying it. According to four veterans, one of those denials from Johns occurred during that opening night dinner.

DeMoss says he missed the initial gathering, but that Azare and Dustin Tinsley came to his room to brief him and did not mention Saudi Arabia. Azare agrees that the two-on-one briefing took place, but says, “I felt that we were extremely thorough…I would have reiterated everything that Jason put out at the dinner.”

Azare emphasizes that his participation was purely voluntary and uncompensated, and says he viewed the Saudi sponsorship as “a relationship of convenience for the veterans,” one that gave them the resources to lobby for a cause they believed in. He says Johns impressed upon him and others that, as they advocated for changes to JASTA, “if you find a solution that will work for veterans but is not going to make the Saudi Arabian government happy, go with the solution.”

When asked what he thought Saudi Arabia was seeking to to accomplish with its JASTA lobbying campaign, Azare says, “I really don’t know. I’ve never met anybody who was actually from Saudi Arabia.”

Lankford Staffer Pushes Back

DeMoss says that most of the legislators and staffers they called on during the week were politely attentive yet non-committal. An exception was the office of Senator James Lankford of DeMoss’s home state of Oklahoma. Legislative counsel Brittany Sadler “was very adamant that what we were trying to do was not good…I think she knew the Saudis were funding it,” he says.

As the week progressed, DeMoss says, word of the Saudi role spread among the veterans, and he received confirmation on either the last night or the last morning. During an informal conversation among veterans in the hotel lobby, he says, “Daniel Tinsley told us.”

The Trump International DC

DeMoss says he consoled a younger veteran who was particularly distraught at the news. “He probably had a lot of moral questioning. ‘Why did I do this?’ He didn’t feel right about it and didn’t know what to do,” he says.

DeMoss says that while he had doubts going in, he wasn’t at all happy to have them confirmed. “I felt like it was disgusting what they were doing,” says DeMoss—all the more so given whose interest was being served. “I don’t like the Saudis. Nobody that’s an American should like the Saudis, shouldn’t work for them or anything. Even though they’re our ‘ally,’ they sponsor terrorism all over the globe,” he says.

“All I can say is, I hope (the organizers) can get some good sleep at night, because I wouldn’t be able to if I was them,” he adds.

“Please don’t share it”

After returning home to Oklahoma and learning more about the Saudi lobbying effort, DeMoss contacted Schmett, asking if he should be concerned about what he was involved in. He says she counseled him to stay silent, telling him, “I’m telling all my veterans to stay away from the media. They’re calling us.”

Using Facebook, DeMoss sent Schmett a link to the publicly-available registration form she completed when notifying the DOJ about her relationship with the kingdom. In a screenshot DeMoss shared with 28Pages.org, Schmett replied, “PLEASE don’t share it. I’ll be in BIG trouble!” It’s not clear what kind of trouble she anticipated.

Seeking to inform those on the other side of the JASTA debate, DeMoss contacted 9/11 widow Terry Strada, who was deeply involved in working for JASTA’s passage, and related his experience to her.

DeMoss says he purposefully ingratiated himself with Johns and other organizers so he could monitor their activities. Azare says DeMoss repeatedly contacted him via Facebook messaging and “begged” to be invited back, and sees an inconsistency between that enthusiasm and his statements of dismay to 28Pages.org.

“I realized these people were fucking over veterans and I wanted to get more information on what they were doing and how far up I could go in the organization,” says DeMoss.

DeMoss found himself among a smaller group of veterans invited to conference calls and included in emails focused on the continuing drive to amend JASTA—and on responding to the controversy over their work.

Dustin DeMoss at Sheppard Air Force Base

DeMoss shared several of those emails with 28Pages.org. In one, Johns characterized the reporting at this site as part of a “coordinated and completely unnecessary character assassination effort” conducted in concert with 9/11 families. In another, Johns shared a link to an article in which a Saudi energy minister expressed confidence that Trump would reverse his stance on JASTA and help overturn it. His subject line was “This will make you smile :)”

Johns’ firm, Wisconsin Legislative Strategies, received $825,990 in fees and reimbursements.

An email from Azare provided suggested talking points to use in the event a veteran was “unexpectedly cornered” by a reporter, encouraging them to declare that “I was never ‘duped,’ ‘misled’ or otherwise lied to about who was paying for my travel to D.C.” That statement seems credible enough when it’s coming from Azare and others close to the top of pyramid. As for the rank and file, DeMoss is now the ninth veteran brought to Washington by the Jason Johns operation to say he wasn’t informed in timely fashion.

In his interview for this story, Azare acknowledges a possibility that some veterans didn’t find out about Saudi Arabia’s role until they first arrived in Washington. In an operation with multiple levels, he says, “eventually, the further you get from the main operation…you’re going to see things slip through the cracks. Do I believe it might have happened? Yes. Do I believe it was intentional by these people? No. At least not the people that I dealt with.”

Schmett: Saudi Arabia did not pay for trip

28Pages.org contacted Schmett to give her an opportunity to provide her own account. When presented with DeMoss’s claim that she didn’t tell him Saudi Arabia was paying for his trip, Schmett asserted that Saudi Arabia did not pay for it—that “the client” did. Presumably, she was referring to Qorvis.

Hearing that, DeMoss says, “It seems like it’s just a way for her to get out of stating that Saudi Arabia paid for it when they did. Everybody knows that Saudi Arabia paid for it. So basically, Saudi Arabia paid Qorvis, and Qorvis paid her, and then Qorvis paid for my airfare. So where did the money come from? It came from Saudi Arabia, right?”

Excerpt from Qorvis Disclosure Filing Detailing Disbursements on Behalf of Saudi Arabia

Schmett praised DeMoss as “a very, very nice man” who “served his country very well.” On the other hand, she said 28Pages.org is “attempting to discredit the veterans and the effort to help the veterans” by amending JASTA.

“Qorvis and her and Johns discredited the veterans by not telling them that Saudi Arabia paid for it,” counters DeMoss. “And then by trying to withhold the factsregarding the actual (JASTA) law, they made us look like fools. Ifanybody discredited us, it’s them. We went up there and we talked to these congressmen and senators and they must have been thinking, ‘these guys are getting played.’ And so we looked like idiots on Capitol Hill.”

DeMoss says Schmett and the other lobbyists also put veterans in potential legal jeopardy. “Connie put me at risk by not giving me the full story and then not telling me that I should register (with the DOJ as an agent of Saudi Arabia). She put me at risk. That’s my name on the record.”

Senator Cornyn made a similar point about veterans being placed in legal jeopardy in the July judiciary hearing on FARA. Note that even voluntary work on behalf of a foreign government must be reported: According to an overview of FARA from the global law firm Holland & Knight, “there is no FARA de minimis rule—registration is required even if the work is done on a pro bono basis.”

I’d liked to have asked Schmett about this and many other aspects of her participation in the Saudi lobbying campaign. Before I could, she terminated the interview, declaring, “I do not give you permission to write an article about me and if you do, you will hear from my lawyer. You’ll be sued.”

According to a Qorvis filing with the DOJ, the Schmetts’ engagement to provide services to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ended on March 30 of this year.

Justice Delayed…and Denied?

Months after 9/11 families and survivors filed their complaint urging a federal investigation of the Saudi lobbying campaign against JASTA, there’s been no indication yet of action by the DOJ. Willful violations of FARA are punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000. However, there’s an awful lot hanging on the word “willful,” and FARA prosecutions are exceedingly rare—only seven cases in 50 years.

DeMoss, though, says there should be some consequence for those who he says failed to inform him and other veterans that Saudi Arabia was paying their way to Washington with a goal of derailing the 9/11 lawsuit: “If they’re doing that to veterans, there should be some kind of justice.”

If you’re a veteran or anyone else who can shed light on the Saudi-sponsored campaign against JASTA, contact us: info@28pages.org

Reprinted with permission from 28Pages.org.


Learn more about this important story: link

NY Tea Party Leader Aided Saudi Drive to Change 9/11 Justice Law

NY Tea Party Leader Aided Saudi Drive to Change 9/11 Justice Law

Stephen Flanagan, founder of Long Island-based Conservative Society for Action, says he didn’t know it was a Saudi operation

Stephen Flanagan

Stephen Flanagan, a Long Island Tea Party leader who chaired a 2010 Republican Senate campaign, used his organization’s platform to aid a Saudi-led drive to alter the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)—but says he wasn’t told he was doing so on behalf of the kingdom accused of facilitating the 9/11 attacks.

Flanagan is the founder and executive director of Conservative Society for Action, and was the focus of a lengthy 2011 Politico profile on the Tea Party movement in New York.

In addition to inviting veterans to accept free trips to Washington to lobby for changes to JASTA, Flanagan solicited signatories for a letter to Congress and also traveled to Capitol Hill himself.

His activities appear to have been coordinated within a Saudi lobbying operation led by Scott Wheeler. As first reported by 28Pages.org, on March 31, Wheeler’s firm, Capitol Media Group, registered with the Department of Justice as an agent of Saudi Arabia and declared that the kingdom paid $90,000 for Wheeler to bring veterans to Washington to press for changes to JASTA. Saudi Arabia also reimbursed $275,000 in travel expenses for participating veterans.

Flanagan says he had no idea that Wheeler, who also runs the National Republican Trust PAC, was working for the Saudis.

“I know nothing about Mr. Wheeler’s dealings with Saudi Arabia. The issue never came up. I was not asked by Mr. Wheeler to become involved so had no reason to query him. The request for me to be involved came from another individual,” says Flanagan via an email responding to an interview request. “I am in communication with that person to see what they knew.”

Another Apparent Victim of Non-Disclosure

While Flanagan has not identified that individual or responded to subsequent inquiries, his claim of ignorance is consistent with the experience of many others who have fallen prey to lobbyists cultivating grassroots opposition to JASTA without disclosing that they are doing so for Saudi Arabia.

Flanagan (right) with an Unidentified Congressional Staffer

The American Conservative reported that Wheeler was working under the umbrella of Qorvis MSLGROUP. Others recruited to the cause by Wheeler and by another Qorvis agent, Jason Johns, say they weren’t told the kingdom was pulling the strings.

JASTA cleared the way for 9/11 families, survivors and insurers to sue Saudi Arabia for the support allegedly provided by Saudi officials to al Qaeda and the September 11 hijackers.

After JASTA was enacted in September 2016 by an override of President Obama’s veto, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia launched an aggressive campaign to convince veterans that the law posed a danger to service members and to recruit them into serving the kingdom’s interest by pushing Congress to change it.

In March, a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a complaint with the Department of Justice pointing to 10 different types of apparent criminal violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by Qorvis and individuals working on the firm’s behalf. There is no indication yet of DOJ action.

Advancing a Misleading Argument

To garner support from veterans, Saudi lobbyists told them that, if other countries reciprocated with their own versions of JASTA, individual service members and veterans would be exposed to lawsuits abroad. However, JASTA only enables suits against governments, not individuals. The misleading argument has been embraced by many current and former government officials.

The argument was also advanced by Flanagan and Conservative Society for Action in a series of four Facebook posts last year.

On Nov. 30, Flanagan declared, “I’m off to Capital (sic) Hill,” and urged followers to help “stop or alter this legislation because it puts our military personnel in danger!”

The next day, Flanagan said he would be meeting with Senator Ted Cruz and urged followers to call their representatives on the issue.

Also on that day, Flanagan appeared in a group photo taken in a congressional office and posted to Facebook by an individual who had traveled to Washington as part of Wheeler’s Saudi-funded lobbying program.

Solicitations to Sign Letter to Congress, Travel to D.C.

On Dec. 6, CSA solicited veterans to join an open letter to Congress that endorsed efforts by Saudi-friendly Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain to alter JASTA. The language Flanagan posted is essentially identical to language found in a letter included in a Dec. 7 disclosure filing by Qorvis detailing its work for Saudi Arabia (side-by-side comparison).

On New Years Day, Flanagan invited veterans to travel to Washington on Jan. 4 to lobby for changes to JASTA, adding “your expenses will be paid.” He didn’t say by whom. (This post appears to have now been deleted from the group’s timeline.)

FARA requires that informational materials used to advance the agenda of a foreign power include a “conspicuous statement” alerting the audience to the role of the foreign government. There were no such disclosures on Flanagan’s posts. “Informational materials” is broadly defined to encompass social media.

As 28Pages.org has reported extensively, offering veterans free travel to lobby against JASTA has been a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s campaign.

Flanagan and Wheeler appear to have crossed paths as early as 2010, when Flanagan chaired former CIA officer Gary Bernsten’s unsuccessful Senate campaign. According to a campaign update, Flanagan and Bernsten had an August 2010 meeting with Wheeler in his capacity as director of the National Republican Trust PAC.

In 2010, Wheeler used the PAC to oppose the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque in lower Manhattan, and circulated an incendiary video that portrayed developers as jihadists who wanted to build “a monument to their victory” on 9/11 and “celebrate (the) murder of 3,000 Americans.” To bring its divisive message to a boil, Wheeler’s video included footage of a victim falling from the towers. (You can watch it here.)

A Shot from Wheeler’s 2010 Video

The attention-getting campaign was likely a fundraising bonanza for Wheeler’s PAC—and perhaps for Wheeler himself. As previously reported by 28Pages.org, Wheeler’s PAC distributes a high percentage of its revenue to Capitol Media Group, much of which is for “PAC management consulting.” According to the firm’s FARA filing, “Capitol Media Group is owned, controlled and operated by Scott Wheeler as sole proprietor.”

National Republican Trust PAC donors who were drawn in by Wheeler’s exploitation of 9/11 might be surprised to find that he would go on to accept $90,000 from the Saudi government in exchange for helping its campaign to weaken JASTA and deny 9/11 families their day in court.

Meanwhile, Flanagan’s participation in the anti-JASTA effort may be particularly troubling to those 9/11 families who—like Conservative Society for Action—call Long Island their home.

According to Newsday, nearly 500 Long Islanders died in the 9/11 attacks. Many of their family members are plaintiffs in the lawsuit that seeks to prove Saudi officials abetted the murderers of their loved ones—the suit the kingdom is seeking to derail with the anti-JASTA effort that Flanagan aided, without, apparently, knowing who was behind it.

One of those Long Island plaintiffs is Kathy Owens. Her husband, Peter J. Owens, was a government bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald and worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

“The whole thing is very distressing to me,” says Owens, who lives in Mineola.  “I can’t wait for the day that the Saudis are completely exposed for not only their hand in 9/11, but this extraordinary, desperate effort to avoid accountability.”

If you have information about Scott Wheeler’s, Stephen Flanagan’s or anyone else’s recruitment of veterans to lobby against JASTA, please contact us: info@28pages.org. 

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Godfather of al Qaeda and Taliban, Dead at 89

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Godfather of al Qaeda and Taliban, Dead at 89

I come not to praise Zbigniew Brzezinski, but to bury him beneath a damning fact omitted from his New York Times and Washington Post obituaries: He bears enormous responsibility for the rise of the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIS.

In 1979, serving as national security advisor, Brzezinski convinced President Jimmy Carter to approve a plan to provide covert CIA aid to opponents of the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan.

Carter signed the secret and deeply fateful directive on July 3 of that year. In launching the effort, “we knowingly increased the probability” of a Soviet invasion, said Brzezinski in a 1998 interview.

When that invasion occurred months later, Brzezinski told Carter, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”

To accomplish that goal, the Carter and Reagan administrations, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, funded, organized, transported, armed and trained Salafist extremists to fight the Red Army in a holy war on behalf of Islam. Among those who joined the cause were future al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

The enduring global impact of this 10-year program bears emphasis: The CIA and Saudi GID recruited jihadists from all around the Muslim world, creating relationships and networks that would evolve into not only into al Qaeda, but also ISIS and many other Salafist terrorist groups across several continents.

An Afghanistan Museum Depicts Civilian Casualties from the Soviet Invasion

In 1998, Brzezinski was asked if had any regrets about launching the program. He replied, “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?”

By some estimates, one million Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict.

The same journalist asked Brzezinski if he regretted arming and training future terrorists. He countered with his own questions: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

That response came three years before 9/11. However, in 2006, even after “stirred-up Muslims” had hijacked four U.S. passenger jets, destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 3,000 people, Brzezinski was still unrepentant. In an interview for the documentary “Our Own Private Bin Laden,” he deflected blame for the rise of organized international jihadism to the Soviet invasion—the one he knowingly made more probable—and said those who link him to the phenomenon “live in a world of paranoia.”

Brzezinski’s Afghan strategy is a case study in the unintended consequences of U.S. interventionism, one that exposes the cold conceit of those who contentedly sacrifice the lives of innocents to the pursuit of grand geopolitical objectives.

In his willingness to make that trade, Zbigniew Brzezinski was much like Osama bin Laden. They may well share the same afterlife.

Republished with permission from 28pages.org

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Godfather of al Qaeda and Taliban, Dead at 89

Consultant Used Facebook To Recruit Others to Saudi Cause

Former Maryland GOP Communications Director Chevy Weiss May Have Violated Foreign Agents Registration Act; Didn’t Disclose Kingdom’s Role

As 9/11 families and survivors await the disposition of a March complaint filed with the Department of Justice alleging broad misconduct by consultants working for Saudi Arabia, 28Pages.org continues to find new examples of apparent violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

The latest discovery: Political consultant Yocheved “Chevy” Weiss, a registered agent of Saudi Arabia, used Facebook to recruit veterans and others to help push for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), but her solicitations did not disclose that she was acting on the kingdom’s behalf.

JASTA cleared the way for 9/11 survivors and family members to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for its alleged support of the al Qaeda hijackers. After its Sept. 28 enactment, the kingdom launched a massive lobbying campaign to push for the law to be repealed or amended.

Read the rest at 28Pages.org

Capitol Media Group Didn’t Tell Vets They Were Lobbying for Saudi Arabia

Capitol Media Group Didn’t Tell Vets They Were Lobbying for Saudi Arabia

Army vet: Scott Wheeler “never told me Saudi Arabia was behind it, nor would I have agreed to do it had I known”

Other veterans, still convinced by flawed argument used to lobby against anti-terror law, at peace with Saudi sponsorship

Scott Wheeler with Veterans on Capitol Hill (Facebook photo)

Four veterans who were brought to Washington to lobby for changes to legislation that enabled 9/11 lawsuits against the government of Saudi Arabia say they didn’t know their trip had been organized and financed by the kingdom.

The veterans are among dozens recruited by conservative political consulting firm Capitol Media Group to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).

The firm is owned by Scott Wheeler, executive director of the Republican National Trust PAC.

“(Wheeler) never told me Saudi Arabia was behind it, nor would I have agreed to do it had I known it was Saudi Arabia,” says Lorraine Barlett, a retired Army officer.

“I had repeatedly asked who was sponsoring the trip. And (Wheeler) always kind of demurred, and said ‘Well, I’m not sure…someone just hired my lobbying group’,” she says.

As reported by 28Pages.org last week, Capitol Media Group registered with the Department of Justice as an agent of Saudi Arabia on March 31, months later than required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), but just two days after 9/11 families and survivors led by widow Terry Strada filed a complaint with the DOJ alleging widespread misconduct by Saudi lobbyists.

In February, 28Pages.org was first to report that vets who had been flown by Qorvis MSLGROUP to Washington to lobby against JASTA weren’t told about the kingdom’s role. Capitol Media Group’s operation was distinct from the one profiled in that report. (It’s not known if it was coordinated with Qorvis. We are awaiting a callback from the firm.)

Wheeler Said to Offer Account That Conflicts with Registration

Army veteran Brad Owens, who participated in multiple trips and invited Barlett and others to go, says he spoke to Wheeler in recent days. He says Wheeler claimed he himself for some period of time didn’t know the operation was funded by Saudi Arabia, and that, rather than working directly for the kingdom, he was separated by two or three intermediaries.

Capitol Media Group’s FARA registration seems to tell a different story. The firm registered as a primary registrant, a status normally reserved for individuals and firms working directly with a foreign government. Those in subsidiary roles normally use a “short-form” registration that indicates they’re working under a primary registrant.

Further, an accompanying document indicates that, in its relationship with the kingdom, Capitol Media Group dealt with Saudi ambassador Abdullah bin Faisal. The forms were signed on behalf of Capitol Media Group by attorney James Kevin Wholey, a former chief of staff to Senate Leader Bob Dole.

According to the filing, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia paid Wheeler’s firm $90,000 to bring several groups of veterans to Washington, and reimbursed $275,000 in travel expenses.

Wheeler has not acknowledged repeated requests from 28Pages.org to provide clarity through an interview or statement.

Another Unregistered Agent?

Elliott Schwartz

According to Barlett, a second man, Elliott Schwartz, was also deeply involved in organizing the group’s activities.

Schwartz is a partner at political consulting firm QE Intelligence, and served as the “war room director” for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.

Barlett says Schwartz made travel arrangements for veterans, met them at their hotel, accompanied them on some trips to Capitol Hill, and, in an email obtained by 28Pages.org, provided the day’s itinerary, which listed appointments with various legislative staffers.

Though Schwartz performed substantial duties in Wheeler’s Saudi lobbying operation, no foreign agent registration for him was found in our search of the Department of Justice’s FARA database. A voicemail seeking an interview with Mr. Schwartz has not yet been acknowledged.

No Trump Hotel, But Money “Thrown Around”

Unlike the other veteran lobbying operation we’ve previously detailed, Wheeler’s groups didn’t stay at the Trump International DC—but that’s not to say his was a thrifty operation.

Morton’s Steakhouse in Downtown Washington

“I was really just stunned how much money they were wasting,” says Barlett. The group dined at pricey steakhouses, including Morton’s and The Capital Grill, and veterans were free to invite Washington-area friends to join them for dinner and drinks.

“You should have seen the way they threw money around. It was unbelievable. Scott had a wad of fifty dollar bills that he would pull out and just like, pick up the tab at the bar and do this and that. I thought, ‘I don’t know who hired you, but it had to be somebody with deep pockets’,” she says.

Deep indeed—and yet, Saudi Arabia may not have received the best lobbying product.

“It was extremely disorganized. We’d be parading from office to office. There was no rhyme or reason…who we were going to see, the strategy, no pre-contacts, no advanced literature distributed to any of the staffers. It was kind of embarrassing,” says Barlett.

Barlett felt like vets were little more than props: “(Wheeler) did not seem that concerned with the veracity of the argument. He was just more concerned that we had a large group of veterans who were basically window dressing. He even told a lot of us, ‘You don’t have to talk. I’ll just go around the room and introduce everybody and you can say where you’re from’.”

Other Vets Comfortable with Saudi Backing

Some veterans contacted by 28Pages.org say that, even though they’re learning of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of their effort for the first time, they aren’t alarmed by the kingdom’s role because they still believe JASTA should be altered.

Navy veteran Jacqueline Wright, via email, says, “While I do firmly believe that Saudi Arabia is literally a cancer on the world, our interests are temporarily aligned in this particular instance, though obviously for vastly different reasons. This isn’t to say that I support Saudi Arabia’s motives. It merely means that it doesn’t surprise me that they recognize the risk from this bill and act accordingly in their own self-interests.”

Michael Blickensderfer, an attorney and Marine veteran in Tampa who traveled to Washington in December and January, says, “I don’t think it takes away anything from the lobbying effort.”

Owens, who recruited several veterans to participate in Wheeler’s lobbying activity, says, “It would have been a good thing to know. It doesn’t change the argument. It doesn’t change whether JASTA is a good bill or not.” (He says he was not compensated for soliciting others to join the effort.)

“I think the law is extremely broad and needs to be modified,” he says. Given his conviction, Owens is ambivalent about who funded his trip: “If someone’s going to assist us to have a voice…why would I turn it down?”

Still Swayed by Dubious Argument

Owens and other veterans say they remain concerned that, if other countries adopt their own version of JASTA, individual U.S. service members and veterans would be sued in foreign courts.

That argument, which is central to Saudi Arabia’s recruitment of veterans—and which has been used by Saudi-friendly senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in leading the assault on JASTA—rests on false premises, according to William S. Dodge, former counselor on international law at the State Department.

“JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts,” said Dodge in a February interview for our thorough examination of the principal arguments advanced in the Saudi lobbying scheme.

JASTA only authorizes suits against foreign governments, not individuals. That fact was underscored last month when attorneys for 9/11 families, newly empowered by JASTA, filed an amended complaint to add the government of Saudi Arabia—and only the government of Saudi Arabia—as a defendant.

Long before learning about Wheeler’s Saudi sponsors, Barlett, an attorney herself, had already concluded that the argument about dangers to individual veterans was empty. “It’s not true. After I read the law pretty well and I read some commentaries about it, I thought, ‘No, this isn’t going to affect us at all. It’s just a big fat lie’,” she says.

She says her conviction was so great that she wrote a detailed opinion discounting the validity of the argument and emailed it to Wheeler, and also attacked it in person.

“I told him during the first trip, and in an email, and in the presence of other people in our group that the argument that this law would impact service members was the weakest argument he had, and yet that’s the argument he wanted everyone to be parroting,” says Barlett.

William S. Dodge

Wright takes offense at suggestions that veterans who lobbied against JASTA were tricked into doing so. “I find it highly insulting to veterans when the opposition implies that we can be misled and manipulated so easily when the bill is only three pages long.”

Dodge, who teaches international law at the University of California Davis, questions the notion that the law’s effect is easily grasped by a novice—or even an international law expert. 

“JASTA is a complicated statute that involves the interaction of several different bodies of federal law. I have been studying these issues for two decades and still had to read it multiple times to understand all of its implications,” he says.

UPDATE: After this story was published, Wright contacted 28Pages.org. “My number one argument against JASTA is that it took the authority of designating who is and who is not a sponsor of terrorism from the State Department, with all the intelligence agencies, and places it in the hands of local district judges…who do not have access to all our intelligence,” she says via phone. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Oil Minister Khalid A. al-Falih, 2016

Saudi Arabia has not been designated a state sponsor of terror. Asked if she thought the kingdom was a state sponsor of terror, Wright says, “Of course I do, but that’s for the State Department to decide.”

Wright says she’s also concerned about secrets leaking during the discovery process of a trial, jeopardizing service members. Declaring that “full repeal (of JASTA) would be ideal,” she says 9/11 families should seek a negotiated settlement with Saudi Arabia without suing. Apparently referring to President Trump, she says, “My idea was, we’ve got a negotiator-in-chief. He prides himself on deal-making. I’m sure he’d love to have a legacy of where he got Saudi Arabia to compensate the families.” 

Group Sought to Distance Itself from Trump-Based Operation

Wheeler’s groups seems to have operated completely independently from the previously-documented Trump hotel contingent, which was organized by lobbyists for Qorvis.

Some in Wheeler’s group knew that a separate group of veterans was operating out of the Trump hotel—and took a dim view of them.

“(They) were…behaving in an unprofessional manner, and generally being an embarrassment to our mission there, causing scenes, staying at lavish places like Trump Tower, wasting tons of money on booze,” says Wright.  

Owens says the Trump hotel contingent had a bad reputation on Capitol Hill. “We were getting some pushback because they were thinking we were associated with those guys,” he says.

“We were asked to be professional and disavow that group should anyone ask.
says Wright. “
Scott assured us that the organization that controlled our group, the National Republican Trust PAC, was not connected to theirs, and I have no reason to doubt that,” says Wright.

Wright’s understanding that Wheeler’s effort was being conducted under the auspices of the National Republican Trust PAC may be significant. Wheeler registered his political consulting firm—Capitol Media Group—with the DOJ, but not the PAC that he directs. Veterans who believed the lobbying was a conservative PAC operation may have been far less inclined to inquire about outside sponsorship.

Wright’s comment isn’t the first indication of National Republican Trust PAC’s links to JASTA lobbying. As we reported last week, a DOJ filing by Qorvis included an open letter to Congress from veterans that used the PAC’s letterhead.

Vet Open to Returning to Washington at Saudi Expense

While the trips appear to have halted in early March, Owens is ready for more.

“Given an opportunity to return to continue to work on the issue and if I knew the money was coming straight out of Riyadh’s back pocket, I would take it because it would be an opportunity to have my voice heard,” says Owens, who spent the bulk of his career in military intelligence.

He agrees, though, that he and his fellow veterans are owed better transparency by Saudi Arabia’s lobbyists: “From this moment forward, if (more veteran lobbying trips happen), bring it out in the open. I think, down the chain, it should be completely open and honest about what we’re doing.”

Despite the stark contrast between Wheeler’s disclosure documents and the account he says Wheeler gave him, Owens says, “I’ve got no reason to think that Scott would ever lie to me.”

Barlett has a different view: “(Wheeler) is the kind of person that, now having had my eyes opened about the whole situation, I deeply regret having anything to do with him because I find him to be very dishonest.”

Saudi Lobbying Scandal: The Timeline

Feb. 7: Daily Caller is first to report that Qorvis is flying veterans to Washington to lobby against JASTA and housing them at the Trump International hotel.

  • One veteran who was solicited but did not attend tells Daily Caller that the individual recruiting him refused to say who was funding the effort. But the question remained: Were veterans who actually traveled to DC kept in the dark?

Feb. 23: In 28Pages.org exclusive, three Marine veterans reveal for the first time that veterans brought to Washington by Qorvis weren’t told Saudi Arabia had paid their way.

  • The principal organizer, speaking to some 40 veterans at the Trump hotel, gave an unsolicited denial of Saudi involvement in their undertaking.
  • Another leader of the effort expressed joy over the prospect that JASTA could be altered in such as way as to prevent 9/11 families from suing Saudi Arabia.
  • Veterans didn’t leave printed material with legislators and were told to say they were concerned veterans “up here on your own.”

March 29: A group of 9/11 families and survivors files a complaint with the Department of Justice.

  • DOJ is asked to investigate leads pointing to broad lobbying misconduct by Qorvis and its associates.

April 3: More veterans come forward to corroborate our February 23 story. 

April 10: 28Pages.org reports that Scott Wheeler’s Capitol Media Group registered with the DOJ as an agent of Saudi Arabia—months later than required. 

  • Firm said it was paid $90,000 to bring three groups of 25 to 35 veterans to Washington to lobby for changes to JASTA.

April 19: In today’s 28Pages.org exclusive, veterans recruited by Wheeler’s Capitol Media Group say they weren’t told Saudi Arabia was behind the effort. 

Reprinted with permission from 28Pages.org.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Godfather of al Qaeda and Taliban, Dead at 89

Saudi Arabia Paid Conservative PR Firm $90K to Lobby Against JASTA

Firm owned by National Republican Trust PAC director Scott Wheeler months late in registering with the Department of Justice

Saudi Arabia paid a conservative political consulting firm $90,000 to bring three groups of 25 to 35 military veterans to Washington to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), according to disclosure documents recently filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Enacted in September 2016, JASTA cleared the way for 9/11 families and survivors to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged support of the attacks. Action in the lawsuit resumed last month.

The firm, Capitol Media Group, is owned by Scott Wheeler, executive director of the National Republican Trust Political Action Committee and an occasional commentator on Fox News, Newsmax and the Sean Hannity Show.

Wheeler’s relationship with the Saudi monarchy is apparently one of great mutual trust: According to a box checked on the filing, their arrangement “is the result of neither a formal written contract nor an exchange of correspondence between the parties,” implying his agreement to perform substantial work and take on financial responsibilities on behalf of the kingdom was purely oral.

Registration With DOJ Was Months Overdue

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires registration within 10 days of agreeing to become an agent of a foreign government and before commencing work for it.

Capitol Media Group’s March 31 registration, however, came months after its efforts for Saudi Arabia began last year, but just two days after a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a complaint with the DOJ alleging broad misconduct by lobbyists for Saudi Arabia—including the failure of many of them to register.

Rather than being signed by Wheeler, the registration and supporting documents were signed by attorney James Kevin Wholey of Phillips Lytle LLP. Wholey was chief of staff to Senate Leader Bob Dole, served on transition teams for presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and advises Republican senators and candidates.

Prince Abdullah Directed Wheeler’s Activities

Capitol Media Group’s disclosure forms indicate that Wheeler took his direction from “His Excellency Abdullah (bin) Faisal,” the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

One of Prince Abdullah’s predecessors in that role, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, figures heavily in 28 pages on Saudi government links to 9/11 that were partially declassified last summer.

The Capitol Media Group disclosure may represent a new dimension of the Saudi veterans lobbying scandal: Until now, only Qorvis MSLGROUP and associated individuals and firms were known to have helped the kingdom bring veterans to Washington to advance its interests.

It’s not known if Wheeler coordinated his efforts with Qorvis, or if Wheeler’s groups of veterans stayed at the Trump International DC, as did the veterans recruited by Qorvis. (If you have information, contact us: info@28pages.org.)

What Were Veterans Told?

Likewise, there’s no indication of how Wheeler went about recruiting veterans to the cause, or whether he engaged other individuals to help him—individuals who would also have a duty to register with the DOJ.

In describing Capitol Media Group’s arrangement with Saudi Arabia on the registration forms, Wholey indicated that the firm “agreed to contact U.S. service veterans interested in obtaining and providing information regarding the Justice Against Supporters (sic) of Terrorism Act.”

FARA requires the filing of informational materials used in a lobbying campaign on behalf of a foreign power. However, when asked on the DOJ registration form if Wheeler’s activities included “the preparation or dissemination of informational materials,” Wholey responded “no.”

According to The Lobbying Manual, the term “informational materials” under FARA includes not only tangible, printed material, but “any other form that is reasonably adapted to being…disseminated or circulated among two or more persons.”

Perhaps we are to conclude that, like Wheeler’s professed negotiation of his arrangement with Prince Abdullah bin Faisal, his recruitment of scores of veterans to travel to Washington to oppose JASTA was purely oral, too.

Attorney James Kevin Wholey

Whatever his means of communication, Wheeler likely told veterans that if other countries passed laws similar to JASTA, individual military service members would be sued in foreign courts—a false claim that has proven highly effective for Qorvis in luring veterans to the cause.

The most important question, though, is whether Wheeler informed veterans that he was acting on behalf of Saudi Arabia and that the kingdom was funding their travel. Seven veterans brought to Washington by Qorvis have come forward to say they weren’t told that Saudi Arabia was behind the campaign.

On its registration statement, Capitol Media Group offers to provide “individual names (of participating veterans) if requested.” 28Pages.org contacted the DOJ’s FARA unit and asked it to direct Wheeler to disclose the names. Seemingly, each of them should have registered as agents of Saudi Arabia, too.

Phone calls and emails from 28Pages.org to Wheeler and Wholey have not yet been acknowledged.

Second Wheeler Entity Also Worked Against JASTA

We’d like to ask Wheeler if he recruited veterans through another entity he controls: the National Republican Trust PAC, which does not appear to have registered with the DOJ as an agent of Saudi Arabia.

Wheeler is the executive director of the PAC, which has gained notoriety for attack ads, including a particularly shameful one that urged viewers to “kill” an Islamic community center and mosque proposed for lower Manhattan. The ad portrayed the center’s developers as jihadists who wanted to build a “monument to their victory” on 9/11 and “celebrate (the) murder of 3,000 Americans.”

A separate DOJ filing of informational materials used by Qorvis on behalf of Saudi Arabia includes an open letter to members of Congress on National Republican Trust PAC letterhead.

Purportedly from 140 veterans, the November 16 letter demanded JASTA’s outright repeal, in contrast to most Saudi-facilitated messaging, which calls for amendments to the law. In lieu of actual signatures, the letter listed the veterans’ names and branches of service.

28Pages.org reached one of the individuals listed on the letter: Daniel Bazikian, who served in the Army from 1968 to 1971. He says he has donated to National Republican Trust PAC on several occasions and, while he has no recollection of supporting the anti-JASTA effort several months ago, he notes that he receives many emails inviting him to sign petitions.

After contemplating information we shared about JASTA and news of Wheeler’s financial relationship with the kingdom, Bazikian responds by quoting a biblical proverb: “It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the righteous of justice.”

A high proportion of the money raised by Wheeler’s National Republican Trust PAC is paid out to Wheeler’s Capitol Media Group. In 2015 and 2016, his PAC took in $415,883 and paid his media firm $212,485 for a variety of services, including $154,634 for “PAC management consulting,” according to our analysis of reporting data posted by the Federal Election Commission.

Did Veterans Profit by Lobbying for Saudi Arabia?

The registration documents filed with the DOJ indicate that, on December 4, January 10 and February 4, Capitol Media Group dispersed $3,000 per participating individual to groups of 25 to 35 veterans to cover “travel and lodging expenses (expenses only–no renumeration).” The firm also declares in the filing that “individuals in the groups were not compensated beyond payment of expenses, within the agreed limits.”

Wheeler’s apparent use of a flat travel allowance, however, would seem to cloud the no-renumeration claim: To the extent participants were able to spend less than $3,000 on travel and lodging, it would appear the arrangement offered the opportunity to pocket the difference—in addition to receiving a free trip to Washington.

On the same dates that Capitol Media Group says it dispensed travel cash, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia paid Capitol Media Group three $30,000 fees, plus $72,000, $101,000 and $102,000 in “expenses and reimbursements,” ostensibly covering those travel and lodging costs. The first and last amounts are equally divisible by $3,000, seeming to indicate those trips involved 24 and 34 travelers, respectively.

Wheeler Supported 9/11 Justice Until He Could Make $90,000 Opposing it

In a June 2009 column at Townhall titled “Obama Bows and Sells Out to Saudi Royals,” Wheeler slammed the Obama administration for arguing before the Supreme Court that, under sovereign immunity laws, 9/11 families should not be permitted to sue Saudi Arabia:

The “Flatow Amendment” to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity (sic) Act was intended to give the families of terrorism victims relief by legally pursuing state sponsors of terrorism. This is the very definition of what the Saudis have done by supporting al Qaeda. One might think that there must be some reasonable explanation for Obama taking this action. There is not. It was Obama’s preference for the Saudi princes over their American victims.

Eight years and $90,000 later, Wheeler’s own preference is now crystal clear.

If you have information about Scott Wheeler’s or anyone else’s recruitment of veterans to lobby against JASTA, please contact us: info@28pages.org. 

Republished with permission from 28Pages.org

 

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