Qorvis-led initiative targeting a law enabling 9/11 suits against Saudi Arabia is the focus of a Department of Justice complaint
By Brian P. McGlinchey
More veterans are coming forward to spotlight misconduct by lobbyists working for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Last week, a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging broad misconduct by Qorvis MSLGROUP and other firms and individuals Qorvis engaged to work against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
The action by 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism followed reporting by 28Pages.org that veterans who were flown to Washington to lobby against a law enabling suits against state sponsors of terror weren’t told that their trip was organized on behalf of Saudi Arabia. (Organizers told veterans that the law puts current and former military service members at risk of being sued in foreign courts. It doesn’t.)
Our initial report reflected the accounts of three veterans—David Casler, Tim Cord and Dan Cord—who said they were misled into lobbying on behalf of the kingdom. Since we broke that story, another four veterans have come forward: Casey Wildgrube, T.J. Hermesman, Scott Bartels, and another who requested to remain anonymous, saying, “I do not wish to be publicly identified with this scandal.”
Their accounts lend further credence to accusations that many individuals engaged by Qorvis on behalf of Saudi Arabia purposefully withheld information and actively misled veterans into unwittingly working for the government accused of facilitating the 9/11 attacks. (If you have insights to share, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“They said it was a veterans advocacy group”
Like Casler and the Cord brothers, Marine Corps veteran Casey Wildgrube says he had no idea who orchestrated his trip to Washington. “The organizers never disclosed their ties to Saudi Arabia or their (Foreign Agents Registration Act) filing (with) the DOJ,” he says via e-mail.
Marine veteran T.J. Hermesman, who deployed to Afghanistan, contacted 28Pages.org shortly after our February 23 story. Later, he told the New York Post, “The organizers were definitely keeping stuff from us. We didn’t get the full story. It was pretty shady.”
Scott Bartels, an infantry veteran of the United States Army and Wisconsin National Guard who deployed to Iraq twice and was awarded a Bronze Star, says he was likewise misled: “I asked who was funding the group, and they said it was a veterans advocacy group.”
The veteran who wishes to remain anonymous—but whose involvement in the lobbying has been verified by 28Pages.org—told us via email that he, too, was kept in the dark well into his involvement.
“I was told the first night of (my) second and final trip, over drinks, that ‘the king’ was paying for these trips, and I was deeply angry,” he says.
He adds that he also had “a sense that the primary argument against JASTA—that U.S. veterans could become entangled in foreign lawsuits—was thin legally and heavily exploited a kind of ‘survivors guilt’ or individual misgivings about the wars themselves…a sense among some veterans that perhaps Iraq was a mistake.”
Organizers Disavow Saudi Involvement
Bartels says he witnessed an event described in our original exposé: lobbying organizer Jason Johns’ unsolicited denial that Saudi Arabia was involved in the undertaking.
In October, Johns registered with the Department of Justice as an agent of Saudi Arabia, with the express purpose of lobbying against JASTA. On his registration form, he disclosed a fee of $100,000 for working on behalf of the monarchy.
However, says Bartels, at a welcoming dinner in a banquet room at the Trump International hotel that kicked off a week of lobbying, “Jason Johns stood up and he’s like, ‘I just want to make sure everyone’s clear that you guys are all here as independent veterans that are concerned with this bill and how it would affect you and we’re not associated with any other group and definitely not associated with the Saudis. I get a lot of flack from people saying…well, you guys are working with the Saudis….and we’re not.’ He point blank came out and said that.”
Bartels, who participated in three lobbying trips, says Cole Azare also disavowed Saudi involvement on more than one occasion.
“Cole Azare and Jason Johns were the two that I would say were (organizationally) the two key people or top people and just below them would be the Tinsley brothers,” says Bartels. The latter reference is to Daniel and Dustin Tinsley.
Bartels’ participation in the anti-JASTA lobbying began with an invitation from Daniel Tinsley, whom he’d met while participating in a veterans running group in Wisconsin.
Johns, Azare and the Tinsleys are all veterans. Of them, only Johns appears to have registered as an agent of Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires registration within 10 days of agreeing to perform political work on behalf of a foreign government, and willful violators are subject to criminal prosecution, with punishment by imprisonment for up to 10 years and fines of up to $10,000.
No Lobbying Flyers, But Plenty of Money for Everything Else
The anonymous veteran says he was angry to find that the operation “seemed so poorly organized—we had no briefing materials, no leave-behind materials (for) congressional offices, no deep policy documentation to prepare for meetings.”
Leave-behind materials are universal and inexpensive lobbying tools, but Qorvis had a powerful incentive to forego using them: FARA requires that any informational materials being distributed on behalf of a foreign government include a conspicuous disclosure of that foreign sponsorship.
Presenting that disclosure would have demolished the facade organizers presented to senators and representatives: “We were told, if any asks who you’re with, you just say you’re a group of veterans up here on your own,” said Casler.
According to Casler, when asked about the lack of handouts, organizers said, “We’re not allowed to leave any printed materials because there’s some requirements for that.”
The lack of literature was also surprising to Bartels—especially given the entirely different and decidedly dubious rationale that was provided to him.
“I remember them saying they didn’t really have the funds to print up all this stuff and hand it out. I thought, well here they’re paying all of us to stay in the Trump hotel and airfare and all this stuff and you can’t print out a little bit of literature? So that kind of struck me as quite odd,” says Bartels.
Odd indeed, considering lavish expenditures elsewhere in the veterans lobbying program—starting with the choice of the Trump International Hotel for lodging and meals.
Qorvis managing director Michael Petruzzello told Yahoo News that rooms were booked at “about $300 per night.” Some of the roughly seven lobbying trips involved about 40 veterans staying for three nights, which would imply room charges of more than $36,000 just for one such week.
Then there’s the expense of flying veterans in from all over the country. There too, money was plentiful—and sometimes wasted.
One week, Bartels says, a veteran called Johns to say he’d missed his flight to Washington. “They bought another ticket right then and there. Johns was like, ‘Man, that ticket was like a thousand dollars or whatever.’ But then that guy never showed up anyway,” he says.
And if Americans ever see a detailed Qorvis billing statement from the Trump International—whether volunteered by Qorvis or subpoenaed by the DOJ when it investigates last week’s complaint—they will find Qorvis spent an extraordinary sum on something its Saudi clients strictly forbid at home: alcohol.
Veterans who participated in the lobbying trips say complimentary dinners in a private room at the Trump International were accompanied by open bars that extended for an hour after the meal. “There were some pretty pricey scotches, so it was a lot of money,” says Bartels. “There’s like 40 guys sitting there pounding down.”
In early January, Washingtonian reported that the Trump International’s Benjamin Bar & Lounge, already notoriously expensive, had again raised its prices, such that the cheapest cocktail cost $24 and the priciest martini, $100. A single ounce of Richard Hennessy Cognac was priced at $350.
Sometimes, Bartels says, the free ride would go into overtime as Johns announced, “I’m keeping it open for another hour, so drink up while it’s free.” Some organizers routinely purchased additional bottles of wine and champagne to drink in the lobby.
Perhaps Qorvis and its royal client received a discount from the published prices, but whatever amount they spent on alcohol, it positively dwarfed what it would have cost to print lobbying handouts.
Visit to Congressman Gets “Pretty Heated”
Bartels says the lobbying visits generally earned vague assurances from legislators or staffers that the veterans’ views would be considered. When they met with Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, however, things went quite differently.
“He was completely, 100 percent against changes to JASTA. And he was getting kind of angry. He was like, ‘Absolutely not, you guys are stabbing the 9/11 families in the back’ and it kind of got serious between Daniel Tinsley and him,” says Bartels.
“We had one of the (retired) lieutenant colonels with us in the group at the time and he basically stepped in between Daniel Tinsley and the congressman and kind of smoothed everything over and calmed everything down. It was starting to get pretty heated,” he says.
Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which was responsible for considering JASTA before it went to the full chamber for a vote and its eventual passage and enactment via an override of President Obama’s veto.
“His position was that the veterans were trying to take away the 9/11 families’ rights to go after Saudi Arabia, and there was absolutely no substantiating proof that JASTA would hurt individual veterans or cause individual veterans to be sued in court,” says Bartels.
Though that false premise was thoroughly rejected by Sensenbrenner, it’s been highly effective in luring veterans to lobby against JASTA.
“In the veteran community, we like to help each other and we like to do things for each other. And when you’re confronted (by someone saying) ‘hey, there’s something that’s really going to affect veterans,’ we all jump on it,” says Bartels, who volunteers with several veterans groups. “And afterwards, to feel like we were lied to, used, abused, whatever, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
While it remains to be seen how the Department of Justice will respond to the complaint it received last week—or whether deceived veterans will seek their own measure of justice through civil suits against Qorvis—Bartels thinks there should be some repercussions for those who led him to Washington with hidden motives and false pretenses.
“They should to be held accountable for bringing a bunch of veterans together, however many it was, without disclosing the full details of what we were doing,” he says. “There should be some sort of consequence for that. What that should be, I don’t know.”