DOJ Complaint Filed Over Saudi Lobbying Campaign That Exploited Military Veterans

Legal action follows 28Pages.org’s revelation that veterans were tricked into unwittingly lobbying for Saudi Arabia

By Brian P. McGlinchey

A group of 9/11 families and survivors has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, suggesting broad misconduct in a lobbying campaign the firm has conducted on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

According to the 17-page complaint, individuals associated with Qorvis MSLGroup violated several provisions of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as they worked to weaken a law that cleared the way for 9/11 families and victims to sue the kingdom for its alleged role in the September 11 attacks.

The accusations, leveled by 9/11 Victims’ Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, center on a campaign in which lobbyists have flown large groups of U.S. military veterans to Washington to oppose the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)—without informing those veterans that Saudi Arabia was sponsoring and orchestrating their activities.

Qorvis’ failure to disclose the Saudi role to participating veterans—and, in turn, to members of Congress they visited—was first revealed by 28Pages.org through accounts provided by veterans David Casler, Tim Cord and Dan Cord. 

Qorvis Exec Dismisses Accusations

Michael Petruzzello

Speaking to investigative journalist Michael Isikoff for a Yahoo News report on the DOJ complaint, Qorvis managing director Michael Petruzzello said the claim that veterans had been tricked into working for Saudi Arabia “rings hollow…I find it hard to believe anyone would feel they didn’t know why they were in Washington.”

However, since our initial report, four more veterans have come forward to 28Pages.org to declare that they, too, were never notified that Saudi Arabia was behind the campaign. (Report coming soon; if you have information on this issue, please email info@28pages.org.)

Qorvis and its associates have attracted veterans to the cause by telling them that, if other countries pass similar laws, individual U.S. service members would face trials in foreign courts. However, as an amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, JASTA only authorizes suits against foreign countries—not individuals. The complaint cites reporting by 28Pages.org that debunks the lobbyists’ claims.

In the complaint, 9/11 family members and survivors urge the DOJ to “commence an immediate national security investigation into potential widespread criminal violations,” suggesting an inquiry may confirm a variety of transgressions, including:

  • Failure of people working on behalf of Saudi Arabia to register as foreign agents
  • Failure to add disclosures of Saudi sponsorship to informational materials and recruiting communications
  • Failure to fully disclose to the DOJ all expenditures made on behalf of Saudi Arabia
  • Failure to submit reports outlining specific lobbying activities performed for Saudi Arabia

A Nationwide Lobbying Effort

In the immediate wake of JASTA’s September 2016 enactment, Qorvis engaged more than 70 individuals throughout the United States who registered with the DOJ as agents of Saudi Arabia with the express purpose of working against JASTA.

It’s unclear how many of those FARA-registered individuals assisted the veterans campaign. Some may have focused on other endeavors, like soliciting people to contact legislators or to submit letters and opinion pieces to local newspapers.

The complaint sent today to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions identifies many people who are linked to the veterans campaign. They include:

  • Jason Johns of NMLB Veterans Advocacy Group in Madison, Wisconsin. Johns appears to be the principal organizer of the veterans lobbying trips. According to several veterans who participated in a January trip, Johns kicked off the welcoming reception with an unsolicited denial that Saudi Arabia was involved in the effort. Until earlier this month, Johns was national senior vice commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH). (28Pages.org has obtained MOPH emails indicating he was recently suspended from the organization for one year; the cause is said to be unrelated to the lobbying scandal.)
  • Dustin Tinsley, Daniel Tinsley and Cole Azare. According to veterans who have participated in the lobbying trips, these three veterans worked closely with Jason Johns and acted as leaders of the effort.
  • Shelbi Lewark. Lewark, who is a vice chair of the Denver GOP, tells 28Pages.org she was hired by Terry Snyder of Denver’s Integrated Legislative Solutions as a subcontractor and helped facilitate veterans’ participation in lobbying trips.
  • Michael Gibson and Sara Raak of Advocacy Group, Inc. This Washington D.C. firm helped facilitate travel arrangements, which included stays at the Trump International.
  • Sarah Durand. According to Daily Caller, this former chief of staff to Kentucky first lady Glenn Bevin solicited veteran Malachias Gaskin in Tennessee.
  • Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod. This current member of the Nevada state assembly was driven to resign from Las Vegas consulting firm Organized Karma after 28Pages.org revealed she is a registered Saudi agent.
  • Dario Herrera. A former Clark County Commissioner who spent 45 months in a federal prison after being convicted of accepting bribes, Herrera solicited veterans to oppose JASTA, using an email address associated with Organized Karma.

The complaint notes that the Tinsleys, Azare, Durand and Herrera have not registered as foreign agents.

28Pages.org has identified other individuals involved in the veterans campaign:

  • Tyler Campbell of LS2Group in Des Moines. Veteran Tim Cord tells us Campbell, who is registered under FARA, helped facilitate his trip to Washington. LS2group appears to have played a substantial role in the broader Qorvis effort against JASTA: At least six people associated with the firm registered as Saudi agents last fall, including the recently elected chair of the South Dakota GOP.
  • David Niffenegger. Tim Cord say Niffenegger recruited him for the lobbying effort. He is also an Iowan; it’s unclear if he was working in concert with LS2group.
  • Jordon Daniel. Lewark tells 28Pages.org that she asked this Navy veteran and fellow Coloradan to help her recruit veterans. UPDATE: Daniel and other veterans tell us he didn’t know Saudi Arabia was orchestrating the lobbying campaign (more below).  

Unregistered Agents Could Number in the Hundreds

Cole Azare

Qorvis’s veteran lobbying campaign resembles a multilevel marketing scheme. Although many in the top tiers complied with the requirement to register as a foreign agent, there appears to be broad noncompliance at the middle and lower levels of the operation.

For example, in addition to the Tinsleys, Azare, Durand and Herrera, 28Pages.org was unable to find FARA registrations for Niffenegger and Daniel.

Some lobbyists appear to have contrived their own flawed interpretations of FARA. Take, for example, the case of Shelbi Lewark and Jordon Daniel.

In addition to recruiting several veterans for the FARA-registered Lewark, Daniel also participated in multiple lobbying trips. When 28Pages.org asked Lewark if Daniel had registered, she said, “No, and that’s because Jordon does not get paid to recruit. This is something he has done all on his own.”

However, a staffer at the DOJ’s FARA office—speaking generally and not about the facts of this case—tells 28Pages.org that compensation isn’t relevant; paid or not, all that matters is the fact that one is engaging in political activities on behalf of a foreign government.

By that standard, it would appear that, had Qorvis been faithful to FARA and devoted to ensuring compliance throughout this highly unusual operation, every individual involved in organizing the effort—and every single veteran who traveled to Washington at Saudi/Qorvis expense—would have submitted a short form registration statement to the DOJ.

Of course, that would first require uniformly notifying veterans that Saudi Arabia was behind the effort, and then alerting them of the need to register as agents of the kingdom accused of facilitating the 9/11 attacks.

Given there were approximately seven lobbying trips said to include upwards of 4o or 50 veterans at a time—and given the participation of many other individuals engaged in recruiting veterans to travel to Washington or to contact Congress—the number of Qorvis-linked individuals who failed to register with the DOJ could easily reach into the hundreds.

Saudi Agent: In Recruiting Vets, Not Important to Disclose Kingdom’s Role “Up Front”

FARA requires that written communications in support of lobbying and public relations work on behalf of a foreign government carry a “conspicuous statement” notifying the audience that the material was prepared on behalf of a foreign government.

The complaint notes that emails sent to veterans by several different Saudi agents failed to reveal the kingdom’s hand.

28Pages.org obtained an email from Shelbi Lewark to seven veterans nominated for participation by Jordon Daniel. She never mentioned Saudi Arabia. Instead, she concluded by noting, “The group of veterans putting this on is anti-JASTA because they believe it harms our military abroad.”

When 28Pages.org asked Lewark why she didn’t use that opportunity to inform her prospects that Saudi Arabia was organizing the effort, she said, “I didn’t want to get into the nitty gritty of that until I knew someone was actually interested…Is it important to disclose that? Yes. Up front? In my opinion, not for this, and it wasn’t for me at the time. Secondly, though, it was disclosed, and since that was Jordon Daniel’s group, that was going to be his responsibility later on to really engage and chat with these people.”

Asked if she notified Daniel about Saudi involvement when she first approached him about the effort, she said, “Absolutely…the people like Jordon, especially those recruiting, from my end, knew fully what they were getting themselves into and who was funding it.”

Lewark spoke highly of Daniel: “He’s a good guy and I hope he’s not going to get dragged through the mud too much.” Daniel has not acknowledged our requests for an interview.

UPDATE: Daniel tells 28Pages.org, “I found out (about Saudi Arabia’s role) when everyone else did. I looked back on all my emails, which was about a dozen, and there is nothing in there (about Saudi Arabia).” 

David Casler, the first veteran to tell 28Pages.org that veterans were being deceived by Saudi lobbyists, was originally recruited by Daniel to participate in the campaign, and says he firmly believes Daniel’s account. “I’ve known Jordon Daniel for over five years and served with him on many veteran-based operations. He is selfless, honorable and hardworking. I would trust him to cover my six in a heartbeat.” 

Marine veteran Casey Wildgrube, who was also recruited by Daniel, concurs: “(Daniel) was also unaware of the group’s ties to Saudi Arabia, and sent me your article as soon as he saw it.” 

Lewark offered to forward emails substantiating her claim that veterans were told about Saudi Arabia’s role later in the process, but, weeks later, we have yet to receive any. Meanwhile, four veterans who were addressed in the above-quoted email from Lewark tell 28Pages.org they were never notified; a fifth chose not to participate in the lobbying and the other two haven’t been reached.

Literature, Social Media Use Also Faulted

A piece of anti-JASTA literature commonly shared with veterans—titled “The Real Impact of JASTA“—failed to include a disclosure of the Saudi role in the campaign.

While the conspicuous statement requirement also applies to social media, that provision appears to have been repeatedly violated by, among others, registered Saudi agent Eric Eisenhammer of Dauntless Communications near Sacramento. Eisenhammer was also named in today’s complaint to the DOJ.

Between October and February, Eisenhammer created more than a dozen anti-JASTA Facebook posts on his personal page without disclosing his Saudi ties on the posts or on his “About” page.

For example, on December 22, he shared the “Real Impact of JASTA” flyer. On other occasions, he used Facebook posts and comments to solicit others to contact Congress about the law. In an October 2 solicitation to a person named Shawnna, rather than disclosing the Saudi role, Eisenhammer said he was “working with a veteran’s coalition.”

Back in D.C., the conspicuous statement requirement seemed to have shaped some very unusual behavior. As we reported last month, veterans lobbying against JASTA weren’t given any literature to distribute to members of Congress they were calling on. “Leave-behind” material is considered essential in any lobbying campaign, and its absence is particularly striking in this one, which had a budget large enough to repeatedly fly scores of veterans to Washington and give them free lodging and meals at the Trump International.

Casler told 28Pages.org that organizers said the decision not to distribute literature on the Hill was vaguely attributed to “requirements.” The intent seems clear: By not distributing written material, the lobbyists avoided the requirement for a written disclosure of Saudi sponsorship.

Read the Full Complaint

The apparent desire to hide the kingdom’s role from legislators and their aides extended to verbal statements as well. “We were told, ‘if anybody asks who you’re with, you just say you’re a group of veterans up here on your own’,” said Casler.

A congressional staffer told 28Pages.org that Saudi-sponsored veterans visiting his office in February dodged his questions about who had organized their visit and where they were staying.

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