Saudi Arabia Paid Conservative PR Firm $90,000 to Bring Vets to DC to Lobby Against JASTA

Firm owned by National Republican Trust PAC director Scott Wheeler months late in registering with the Department of Justice

By Brian P. McGlinchey

Saudi Arabia paid a conservative political consulting firm $90,000 to bring three groups of 25 to 35 military veterans to Washington to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), according to disclosure documents recently filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Enacted in September 2016, JASTA cleared the way for 9/11 families and survivors to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged support of the attacks. Action in the lawsuit resumed last month.

The firm, Capitol Media Group, is owned by Scott Wheeler, executive director of the National Republican Trust Political Action Committee and an occasional commentator on Fox News, Newsmax and the Sean Hannity Show.

Wheeler’s relationship with the Saudi monarchy is apparently one of great mutual trust: According to a box checked on the filing, their arrangement “is the result of neither a formal written contract nor an exchange of correspondence between the parties,” implying his agreement to perform substantial work and take on financial responsibilities on behalf of the kingdom was purely oral.

UPDATE: See this subsequent report to learn about Wheeler’s claims to one veteran of a different set of circumstances surrounding his involvement. 

Registration With DOJ Was Months Overdue

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires registration within 10 days of agreeing to become an agent of a foreign government and before commencing work for it.

Capitol Media Group’s March 31 registration, however, came months after its efforts for Saudi Arabia began last year, but just two days after a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a complaint with the DOJ alleging broad misconduct by lobbyists for Saudi Arabia—including the failure of many of them to register.

Rather than being signed by Wheeler, the registration and supporting documents were signed by attorney James Kevin Wholey of Phillips Lytle LLP. Wholey was chief of staff to Senate Leader Bob Dole, served on transition teams for presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and advises Republican senators and candidates.

Prince Abdullah Directed Wheeler’s Activities

Capitol Media Group’s disclosure forms indicate that Wheeler took his direction from “His Excellency Abdullah (bin) Faisal,” the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

One of Prince Abdullah’s predecessors in that role, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, figures heavily in 28 pages on Saudi government links to 9/11 that were partially declassified last summer.

The Capitol Media Group disclosure may represent a new dimension of the Saudi veterans lobbying scandal: Until now, only Qorvis MSLGROUP and associated individuals and firms were known to have helped the kingdom bring veterans to Washington to advance its interests.

It’s not known if Wheeler coordinated his efforts with Qorvis, or if Wheeler’s groups of veterans stayed at the Trump International DC, as did the veterans recruited by Qorvis. (If you have information, contact us: info@28pages.org.)

What Were Veterans Told?

Likewise, there’s no indication of how Wheeler went about recruiting veterans to the cause, or whether he engaged other individuals to help him—individuals who would also have a duty to register with the DOJ.

In describing Capitol Media Group’s arrangement with Saudi Arabia on the registration forms, Wholey indicated that the firm “agreed to contact U.S. service veterans interested in obtaining and providing information regarding the Justice Against Supporters (sic) of Terrorism Act.”

FARA requires the filing of informational materials used in a lobbying campaign on behalf of a foreign power. However, when asked on the DOJ registration form if Wheeler’s activities included “the preparation or dissemination of informational materials,” Wholey responded “no.”

According to The Lobbying Manual, the term “informational materials” under FARA includes not only tangible, printed material, but “any other form that is reasonably adapted to being…disseminated or circulated among two or more persons.”

Perhaps we are to conclude that, like Wheeler’s professed negotiation of his arrangement with Prince Abdullah bin Faisal, his recruitment of scores of veterans to travel to Washington to oppose JASTA was purely oral, too.

Attorney James Kevin Wholey

Whatever his means of communication, Wheeler likely told veterans that if other countries passed laws similar to JASTA, individual military service members would be sued in foreign courts—a false claim that has proven highly effective for Qorvis in luring veterans to the cause.

The most important question, though, is whether Wheeler informed veterans that he was acting on behalf of Saudi Arabia and that the kingdom was funding their travel. Seven veterans brought to Washington by Qorvis have come forward to say they weren’t told that Saudi Arabia was behind the campaign.

On its registration statement, Capitol Media Group offers to provide “individual names (of participating veterans) if requested.” 28Pages.org contacted the DOJ’s FARA unit and asked it to direct Wheeler to disclose the names. Seemingly, each of them should have registered as agents of Saudi Arabia, too.

Phone calls and emails from 28Pages.org to Wheeler and Wholey have not yet been acknowledged.

Second Wheeler Entity Also Worked Against JASTA

We’d like to ask Wheeler if he recruited veterans through another entity he controls: the National Republican Trust PAC, which does not appear to have registered with the DOJ as an agent of Saudi Arabia.

Wheeler is the executive director of the PAC, which has gained notoriety for attack ads, including one that urged viewers to “kill” an Islamic community center and mosque proposed for lower Manhattan. The ad portrayed the center’s developers as jihadists who wanted to build a “monument to their victory” on 9/11 and “celebrate (the) murder of 3,000 Americans.”

A separate DOJ filing of informational materials used by Qorvis on behalf of Saudi Arabia includes an open letter to members of Congress on National Republican Trust PAC letterhead.

Purportedly from 140 veterans, the November 16 letter demanded JASTA’s outright repeal, in contrast to most Saudi-facilitated messaging, which calls for amendments to the law. In lieu of actual signatures, the letter listed the veterans’ names and branches of service.

28Pages.org reached one of the individuals listed on the letter: Daniel Bazikian, who served in the Army from 1968 to 1971. He says he has donated to National Republican Trust PAC on several occasions and, while he has no recollection of supporting the anti-JASTA effort several months ago, he notes that he receives many emails inviting him to sign petitions.

After contemplating information we shared about JASTA and news of Wheeler’s financial relationship with the kingdom, Bazikian responds by quoting a biblical proverb: “It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the righteous of justice.”

A high proportion of the money raised by Wheeler’s National Republican Trust PAC is paid out to Wheeler’s Capitol Media Group. In 2015 and 2016, his PAC took in $415,883 and paid his media firm $212,485 for a variety of services, including $154,634 for “PAC management consulting,” according to our analysis of reporting data posted by the Federal Election Commission.

Did Veterans Profit by Lobbying for Saudi Arabia?

The registration documents filed with the DOJ indicate that, on December 4, January 10 and February 4, Capitol Media Group disbursed $3,000 per participating individual to groups of 25 to 35 veterans to cover “travel and lodging expenses (expenses only–no renumeration).” The firm also declares in the filing that “individuals in the groups were not compensated beyond payment of expenses, within the agreed limits.”

Wheeler’s apparent use of a flat travel allowance, however, would seem to cloud the no-renumeration claim: To the extent participants were able to spend less than $3,000 on travel and lodging, it would appear the arrangement offered the opportunity to pocket the difference—in addition to receiving a free trip to Washington.  UPDATE: In subsequent interviews, veterans who participated tell 28Pages.org their travel and lodging expenses were paid for them with no out-of-pocket costs or reimbursements, and that they were not compensated for their participation.  

If, on the other hand, Wheeler paid for the travel himself and then billed the kingdom $3,000 per traveler, he would have the opportunity to keep any excess.

On the same dates that Capitol Media Group says it dispensed travel cash, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia paid Capitol Media Group three $30,000 fees, plus $72,000, $101,000 and $102,000 in “expenses and reimbursements,” ostensibly covering those travel and lodging costs. The first and last amounts are equally divisible by $3,000, possibly indicating those trips involved 24 and 34 travelers, respectively.

Wheeler Supported 9/11 Justice Until He Could Make $90,000 Opposing it

In a June 2009 column at Townhall titled “Obama Bows and Sells Out to Saudi Royals,” Wheeler slammed the Obama administration for arguing before the Supreme Court that, under sovereign immunity laws, 9/11 families should not be permitted to sue Saudi Arabia:

The “Flatow Amendment” to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity (sic) Act was intended to give the families of terrorism victims relief by legally pursuing state sponsors of terrorism. This is the very definition of what the Saudis have done by supporting al Qaeda. One might think that there must be some reasonable explanation for Obama taking this action. There is not. It was Obama’s preference for the Saudi princes over their American victims.

Eight years and $90,000 later, Wheeler’s own preference is now crystal clear.

If you have information about Scott Wheeler’s or anyone else’s recruitment of veterans to lobby against JASTA, please contact us: info@28pages.org. 

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