With all the worry about Russia influence over U.S. elections, it’s easy to overlook the many foreign interests working to impact U.S. policy every day, through paid lobbying. American lobbyists have made billions working for foreign entities. Who’s paying whom for what is subject to federal disclosure laws, but the system may not always work as intended. We investigated a case in point: some U.S. military vets who claim they were duped into lobbying for the wrong side.
Sharyl: This twisted tale of Washington D.C. lobbying begins in an unlikely place, with a rock band from Utah. That’s Tim Cord singing, his brother on lead guitar, both Iraq war vets.
Tim Cord: My brother and I were in a rock band called American Hitmen, so we’ve kind of made a name for ourselves in the music scene as veterans.
Sharyl: They hoped to play at President Trump’s inauguration. But when that gig didn’t come through, a political contact they’d met on the road offered what sounded like a decent consolation prize.
Cord: He just said it’s going to be an all-expensive, all-expenses paid trip for four days basically to D.C. “See how D.C. works” is basically how they worded it.
Sharyl: It turned out to be a little more than that. Shortly before the trip, one organizer sent an email saying that in Washington D.C., they’d be visiting with other vets who were pushing to change a new law called “JASTA.” JASTA is the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. It allows families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for any alleged ties to the Islamic extremist terrorist attacks. Saudi Arabia is against the law.
Cords’ trip to the Capitol began with open bar at a luxurious hotel with some retired generals and purple heart recipients who seemed to know a lot about the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism law. Folders were handed out claiming the law was disastrous for veterans. Then came an odd announcement, Cord says, from this man, organizer Jason Johns, a veterans’ advocate.
Cord: Jason Johns stood up and he said,“Thank you all so much for coming. I know there’s a lot of rumors going around, but we can assure you there’s no Saudi money behind this.” I don’t think any of us, at least at my table, had even thought about the Saudis. It was just kind of a weird statement to make opening night.
Things got stranger the next day when they visited Senate offices to promote supposed improvements to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism law. Cord says he began to feel like he was being used to lobby for some hidden interest, and he says his suspicions were confirmed that night by a drunk confession from an organizer.
Cord: I said, “So by the way, who’s paying for all of this?” And he’s like, “Dude, it’s the Kingdom.” And I said, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?” And he’s like, “Yeah, man.” We joined the Marine Corps after 9/11. I mean 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis, so I don’t want anything to do with the Saudi Arabian Kingdom or their money.
Cord shared the news with others in his group that he says didn’t know either and confronted the contact who first invited him on the trip.
Cord: He goes,“Well, welcome to politics, Tim. It’s either Obama and the Iranians or the Republicans and the Saudis. Welcome to Washington.” It came to the realization that my brother and I were sitting there eating catered dinner on the Saudi dime in an attempt to shoot down the 9/11 victims’ families’ lawsuit against the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. It was probably one of the worst feelings I’ve had in my life.
Sharyl: It turns out a lobby firm called Qorvis had arranged the Washington trip. And Qorvis has been on the Saudi payroll since two months after the 9/11 attacks with a contract that paid $200,000 a month, $2.4 million a year.
Sharyl: And Qorvis isn’t the Kingdom’s only lobbyist. Lydia Dennett is an investigator with the nonprofit watchdog Project on Government Oversight.
Lydia Dennett: By the end of 2016, the Saudi Arabian government had 22 different lobbying firms working to promote their interests in the U.S. Twelve of which were added in the fall of 2016 alone, right around the time that JASTA was or the 9-11 bill was introduced.
Sharyl: What do you sense the Saudis were trying to do when it comes to that bill?
Dennett: They were trying to get their message out there, which was that it was a dangerous bill that would set a dangerous precedent across the world.
Sharyl: That’s exactly the messaging that flooded the media in the U.S. The Saudi money helped distribute the Kingdom’s talking points, and place op-eds that argued a law allowing 9/11 families to sue countries like Saudi Arabia would cause foreign countries to retaliate and sue our military personnel, which is the argument President Obama made last September when he vetoed the bill.
Sharyl: President Obama: That concern that I have has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia per se or my sympathy for 9/11 families. It has to do with me not wanting a situation in which we’re suddenly exposed to liabilities from all the work that we’re doing around the world.
Sharyl: But Congress overrode the President’s veto. That’s when Qorvis, as a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia, hired Jason Johns to put together the vets’ trip to Washington.
Dennett: Because it was done through this lobbying firm, the veterans themselves and the public may not have known that these were talking points and issues that were coming from the Saudi Arabian government, which sort of undermines the entire transparency and intent of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Sharyl: The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 requires lobbyists for foreign interests to register and file reports. That’s how we know that Jason Johns was hired by Qorvis and officially registered to lobby elected officials on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Cord: We found out afterward, that Jason Johns was a registered Saudi agent, and he made $100,000. It’s on public record that he was paid a hundred grand by the Kingdom and registered as a Saudi agent.
Sharyl: By email, Jason Johns told us that vets with “ulterior motives” are issuing “mistruths and false allegations.” He declined our request for a one-on-one interview and insisted we interview “at least three other” unnamed vets he would arrange in a group setting with him. We explained that under news policies, we can’t agree to terms, such as who we must interview. Johns added we shouldn’t focus on “a few veterans feeling they were ‘duped’ but why hundreds volunteer[ed] to go to D.C. and speak about why amending JASTA is so vital to them, our currently serving military, and our national security.”
Qorvis declined our interview requests, but has previously denied deceiving veterans, said it reports disclosures accurately and it’s “hard to believe anyone would feel they didn’t know why they were in Washington.”
Sharyl: Saudi Arabia might say everything we did was perfectly legal. U.S. law allows them to hire people in this country and lobby for their interests. What did they do wrong?
Dennett: In any written materials distributed, if there were emails sent to these veterans or their veteran groups, they’re required to say very clearly in there,“this is information, we’re being paid to distribute this information by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and more information is available at the Department of Justice.” If the emails or any documents did not include that statement, then that’s a violation of the law.
Sharyl: In fact, an examination of some emails trip organizers allegedly sent to vets, made no mention of Saudi lobbying. This one billed the DC trip as “basically like a 5-star vacation”, noting “you don’t have to know anything about JASTA”, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
Dennett: The issues that these foreign countries are lobbying on can be everything from foreign aid to arms deals, appropriated funds which come from taxpayer dollars. So the public deserves to know exactly how the policy is being made.
Tim Cord says, in the end, one promise of his trip was fulfilled. He did learn a lot about how Washington works.
Cord: It was the worst feeling ever because there’s nothing I can do about it. My name will forever be on a ledger, my brother’s name will forever be on a ledger, saying that we were wined and dined by the Saudis. And it’s, it’s not a good feeling. It sucks.
Sharyl: The 9-11 families suing Saudi Arabia have asked the Attorney General to investigate potential criminal violations of lobbying laws. The Saudi Embassy declined comment for this story, but the kingdom continues to expand its effort to influence US policy, adding six more lobby firms to the Saudi payroll in the past six months for a total of twenty-eight.