Hillary Clinton, The Podesta Group, and The Job of Making Ugly Regimes Look Good
Yesterday, The Huffington Post published an article featuring the hiding-in-plain-sight news that the Podesta Group — the lobbying and public affairs firm co-founded by former Bill Clinton administration Chief of Staff/current Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which is still run by his brother Tony Podesta — has been receiving monthly payments of $140,000 to whitewash the image of Saudi Arabia's government through lobbying and public relations manuevering.
The article also notes that Tony Podesta's own name is registered on the Saudi account in the required Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) paperwork, as well as the fact that Tony is a major donor bundler and financial contributor to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
The point of the piece is to stoke outrage that "while one brother runs the campaign, the other brother funds it with earnings that come, in part, from the Saudis," a nominal U.S. ally, "that beheads nonviolent dissidents, uses torture to extract forced confessions, doesn't allow women to drive, and bombs schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods in neighboring Yemen."
The Saudi government brought the Podesta Group on to its payroll in 2015 to help rehabilitate the Kingdom's image in the American media and Congress, after a growing backlash over the Saudis' responsibility for the high civilian death toll in Yemen, as well as the international outrage over the imprisonment and flogging of a liberal political blogger for "insulting Islam." Among the Podesta Group's accomplishments was providing a Saudi commentator to speak to the New York Times to defend the regime's actions.
Not discussed in the HuffPo article is the Podesta Group's work on behalf of a group representing the interests of the Ukrainian government during the administration of now-exiled former President Viktor Yanukovych, who now resides in Russia after being deposed following a murderous crackdown on civilian protesters in the winter of 2013-2014 and allegations of widespread corruption.
Despite being publicly available information for some time, the Yanukovych-Podesta Group connection was thrust back into the spotlight last week after it was revealed that Donald Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort's firm did covert work for Yanukovych's pro-Kremlin Party of Regions and helped steered two firms — Mercury and the Podesta Group — to a shadowy Brussels-based firm called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU), which contracted both firms to lobby in the U.S. on its behalf.
The EFCMU, it turns out, was a barely-veiled front group for the Party of Regions.
The revelation led to Manafort's swift resignation from Trump's campaign. Neither Manafort nor any representative from Mercury or the Podesta Group registered their work for the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but instead did so under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Lobbyists who fail to register under FARA when representing a foreign government, political party, or politician are potentially subject to felony prosecution, but all parties involved are claiming they didn't know the ECFMU wasn't a legitmiately independent entity.
But Podesta Group CEO Kimberley Fritts was quoted by Politico in August as saying the ECFMU had provided a written statement at the beginning of their professional relationship that "none of the activities of the Centre are directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed or subsidized in whole or in part by a government of a foreign country or a foreign political party." Fritts added that the Podesta Group had retained an outside legal firm to investigate whether or not they had been duped by the ECFMU and that they were considering litigation against the Centre, which no longer has an online presence and appears to be inactive.
Perhaps the Podesta Group lacks access to Google, because when the Los Angeles Times reported in 2012 on the ECFMU's $200,000 contract with the Podesta Group, the Times described the ECFMU as "an operation controlled by Yanukovych" which "hired lobbyists and public relations teams to help him project a progressive image while he quietly squeezes the press and rejiggers election laws to guarantee his party permanent rule."
By 2013, Reuters was reporting that the Podesta Group had received $900,000 in payments from the ECFMU, and Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray wrote about the ECFMU's payments to conservative U.S. writers and bloggers in exchange for favorable coverage for the Party of Regions.
Ukrainska Pravda reported in 2014 that the ECFMU was founded by three former members of the Ukrainian Parliament — all members of Yanukovych's Party of Regions — and that the group had spent over $1 million lobbying the U.S. Congress through firms such as the Podesta Group. That same year, after Yanukovych was booted from office and fled the country, Eli Lake wrote for The Daily Beast of how easily the ECFMU was able to evade the requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, by falsely presenting itself as an independent organization.
According to the non-profit research group OpenSecrets, the ECFMU lobbied on behalf of Yanukovych's interest in over a dozen Congressional bills between 2012-2014, but only one of these bills listed the Podesta Group as a lobbyist: a 2012 resolution calling for the release from prison of Yanukovych's political rival, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Last week, the Associated Press ran a story (curiously headlined "Trump aides covertly fought freeing of Ukrainian prisoner") that goes into some detail on the efforts by Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, Mercury, and The Podesta Group "that appeared to undercut public support for imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko, who was considered a political prisoner by U.S. and European governments." Relying on "emails and insider accounts," the AP described how Gates intended to scour the legally required disclosure reports as a means of gathering intelligence on former Congressman turned lawyer and lobbyist Jim Slattery (D-Kan.), who was lobbying on behalf of Tymoshenko.
The AP wrote, "In particular, Gates wanted to know the address of Slattery's client and any information that could be gathered in the U.S. to complement similar digging in Ukraine." For his part, Slattery said, "I damn sure didn't want to get in trouble violating foreign agent laws," so he did what The Podesta Group and their lobbyist cohort did not, which is disclose that he was working on behalf of a foreign political figure.
Both Mercury and the Podesta Group publicly maintain they did not know they were working on behalf of "Ukrainian political interests," but one Mercury employee told the AP "the firm overtly opposed Tymoshenko's release" and was quoted as saying, "Everyone knew this was a shadow organization working for the greater good of the Party of Regions."
For all the talk about the Clinton Foundation being a problem of optics for Hillary Clinton's campaign, it's strange that the Podesta Group's lobbying and public relations work on behalf of both the Saudi and former Ukrainian governments isn't raising more eyebrows, particularly considering the fact that the Podesta Group was either duped by the Ukrainian regime or too careless to check out the source of their seven figure payments.
If Manafort's work made him too much of a liability to stay on the Trump campaign, what does the Podesta brothers' business mean for Hillary Clinton's campaign?