WASHINGTON - In May 2017, as it was stepping up its two-year military campaign in Yemen, Saudi Arabia faced the prospect of a cutoff in badly needed American bombs.
A bipartisan resolution introduced by three senators threatened to block the sale to Saudi Arabia of precision-guided munitions and other weapons, part of a $110 billion arms package that President Donald Trump had negotiated with Saudi leaders just days before.
To overcome the opposition, Saudi Arabia turned to a platoon of Washington firms that it employs to lobby members of Congress.
Among them was Marc Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist and managing partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of more than two dozen firms that represent Saudi interests in the United States. Over the course of several weeks, Lampkin, an ex-adviser to former House Speaker John Boehner, called or emailed the offices of several Republican senators more than 20 times to discuss the ”motion to disapprove the sale of precision-guided munitions,” according to filings made with the Justice Department.
One of Lampkin’s frequent targets was the office of Tim Scott, a Republican senator from South Carolina. On May 16, one of three times he called Scott’s office, Lampkin discussed the resolution with Charles Cogar, Scott’s legislative director, according to Brownstein’s federal lobbying records. Lampkin later reported donating $2,000 to Scott’s political action committee on the same day, May 16.
Less than a month later, Scott joined 52 other senators in voting to defeat the resolution, though he has voted against Saudi interests on at least one other occasion.
The episode is one of a dozen in which a lobbyist working for Saudi Arabia approached a member of Congress on behalf of the kingdom last year and contributed to the member’s political campaign on the same day, according to new research by Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.
U.S. law allows foreign governments and other entities to lobby members of Congress and U.S. government officials, but it prohibits foreigners from making contributions to American political campaigns.
Freeman’s findings, based on 2017 data, will appear in a research report on Saudi Arabia’s influence operations in the United States that he is releasing next week. Freeman discussed his findings with VOA ahead of the report’s release.
In all, Freeman found lobbyists working for Saudi Arabia made more than $2 million in campaign contributions in 2017, including nearly $400,000 to the campaigns of at least 75 members of Congress whom they contacted on behalf of the kingdom. The beneficiaries represent a “who’s who" list of members of Congress, with roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, Freeman said.
“It’s one of the few nonpartisan issues in D.C. actually,” he said.
Key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as leaders of both political parties, were contacted and contributed to, Freeman said.
He declined to disclose the full list but said it included Senators Bob Corker, Angus King, Claire McCaskill and the late John McCain, as well as Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Devin Nunes and Ed Royce.
“The more somebody is contributed to by Saudi lobbyists, the more they’re contacted by Saudi lobbyists, the more they’re likely to vote the way the Saudis want,” Freeman said.
One of largest operations
Saudi Arabia runs one of the largest influence operations in the United States. Last year, the oil-rich kingdom spent nearly $27 million on lobbying efforts in the U.S. Records show that the Brownstein firm received nearly $500,000 from the Saudi government in 2017.
Freeman and other critics say operations like the Saudis’ straddles a gray area legally, since individual lobbyists are permitted to make campaign contributions in their own names.
“One of the laws it gets around is the prohibition on foreign nationals making campaign contributions in the U.S.,” Freeman said. “You can’t do that. But what you can do if you’re a foreign national, you can hire a lobbying firm or a public relations firm to work on your behalf. So long as that lobbying or public relations firm is run by American citizens, those American citizens can donate to whomever they choose to.”
David Laufman, a Washington lawyer who until recently oversaw the Justice Department’s enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), said there is nothing in the law that prohibits lobbyists for foreign governments from making campaign contributions, which often facilitate access to key lawmakers.
“It’s fair for people to have concerns about an appearance of impropriety as well as actual impropriety and possible violations of law, but unless and until Congress wanted to change the law, this is the legal regime we have to work with,” Laufman said.
Paul Miller, president of the National Institute For Lobbying & Ethics, said the proximity between the reported campaign contributions and contacts can create “appearances of impropriety,” but he rejected the notion that donations were meant to exert undue influence on members of Congress.
“I just find it hard to believe in today’s day and age, you’re buying or bribing anybody at any level for $2,000 for a vote on something that significant,” Miller said.
He noted that many lobbyists represent multiple clients, making it hard to tie a donation to one client.
“Unless the Saudi government is their only client, they could have been doing it on behalf of other clients or multiple clients,” Miller said.
Lampkin did not respond to questions about the timing of his campaign contribution to Scott. Sean Conner, a spokesman for Scott, did not respond to a request for comment.
Al Mottur, a shareholder at Brownstein Hyatt, dismissed any link between the firm’s lobbying and campaign contributions.
“We have well over 100 clients and we’re a bipartisan firm that makes contributions to senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle,” Mottur said. “Those contributions have absolutely nothing to do with any of our work for foreign sovereign clients. Absolutely nothing.”
The Oct. 2 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has put a spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s global influence operations, including its lobbying efforts in the United States. Amid an international uproar over Khashoggi’s death, four firms have dropped Saudi Arabia as a client, but others have stuck it out and at least one new firm has added the kingdom to its client list.
Among the firms representing Saudi Arabia are some of the biggest names in the lobbying world: Squire Patton Boggs, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, DLA Piper, the now-defunct Podesta Group, and the McKeon Group, a shop headed by Howard “Buck” McKeon, a former Republican congressman who headed the powerful House Armed Services Committee from 2011 to 2015.
In all, the lobbying and PR firms working for Saudi Arabia engaged in more than 2,500 “political activities,” including contacting members of Congress, in late 2016 and 2017, according to Freeman’s calculation. The activities included “hundreds of instances” where PR firms contacted major media outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and Fox News “trying to get favorable coverage for Saudi Arabia.
The lobbying activity accelerated around key votes in Congress, though it wasn’t always successful.
In late 2016, as Congress prepared to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a law that would allow victims and families of victims of the attacks of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged involvement in the tragedy, the Saudi lobbying machine went into overdrive.
“We saw a lot of activity surrounding that,” Freeman said.
In the end, Congress passed the bill despite the lobbying. Former president Barack Obama vetoed it, but Congress overrode the veto with Scott, the South Carolina senator, among those voting to do so.