Army vet: Scott Wheeler “never told me Saudi Arabia was behind it, nor would I have agreed to do it had I known”
Other veterans, still convinced by flawed argument used to lobby against anti-terror law, at peace with Saudi sponsorship
By Brian P. McGlinchey
Veterans who were brought to Washington to lobby for changes to legislation that enabled 9/11 lawsuits against the government of Saudi Arabia say they didn’t know their trip had been organized and financed by the kingdom.
The veterans are among dozens recruited by conservative political consulting firm Capitol Media Group to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
The firm is owned by Scott Wheeler, executive director of the Republican National Trust PAC.
“(Wheeler) never told me Saudi Arabia was behind it, nor would I have agreed to do it had I known it was Saudi Arabia,” says Lorraine Barlett, a retired Army officer.
“I had repeatedly asked who was sponsoring the trip. And (Wheeler) always kind of demurred, and said ‘Well, I’m not sure…someone just hired my lobbying group’,” she says.
As reported by 28Pages.org last week, Capitol Media Group registered with the Department of Justice as an agent of Saudi Arabia on March 31, months later than required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), but just two days after 9/11 families and survivors led by widow Terry Strada filed a complaint with the DOJ alleging widespread misconduct by Saudi lobbyists.
In February, 28Pages.org was first to report that vets who had been flown by Qorvis MSLGROUP to Washington to lobby against JASTA weren’t told about the kingdom’s role. Capitol Media Group’s operation was distinct from the one profiled in that report. (It’s not known if it was coordinated with Qorvis. We are awaiting a callback from the firm.)
Wheeler Said to Offer Account That Conflicts with Registration
Army veteran Brad Owens, who participated in multiple trips and invited Barlett and others to go, says he spoke to Wheeler in recent days. He says Wheeler claimed he himself for some period of time didn’t know the operation was funded by Saudi Arabia, and that, rather than working directly for the kingdom, he was separated by two or three intermediaries.
Capitol Media Group’s FARA registration seems to tell a different story. The firm registered as a primary registrant, a status normally reserved for individuals and firms working directly with a foreign government. Those in subsidiary roles normally use a “short-form” registration that indicates they’re working under a primary registrant.
Further, an accompanying document indicates that, in its relationship with the kingdom, Capitol Media Group dealt with Saudi ambassador Abdullah bin Faisal. The forms were signed on behalf of Capitol Media Group by attorney James Kevin Wholey, a former chief of staff to Senate Leader Bob Dole.
According to the filing, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia paid Wheeler’s firm $90,000 to bring groups of veterans to Washington, and reimbursed $275,000 in travel expenses.
Wheeler has not acknowledged repeated requests from 28Pages.org to provide clarity through an interview or statement.
Another Unregistered Agent?
According to Barlett, a second man, Elliott Schwartz, was also deeply involved in organizing the group’s activities.
Schwartz is a partner at political consulting firm QE Intelligence, and served as the “war room director” for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
Barlett says Schwartz made travel arrangements for veterans, met them at their hotel, accompanied them on some trips to Capitol Hill, and, in an email obtained by 28Pages.org, provided the day’s itinerary, which listed appointments with various legislative staffers.
Though Schwartz performed substantial duties in Wheeler’s Saudi lobbying operation, no foreign agent registration for him was found in our search of the Department of Justice’s FARA database. A voicemail seeking an interview with Mr. Schwartz has not yet been acknowledged.
No Trump Hotel, But Money “Thrown Around”
Unlike the other veteran lobbying operation we’ve previously detailed, Wheeler’s groups didn’t stay at the Trump International DC—but that’s not to say his was a thrifty operation.
“I was really just stunned how much money they were wasting,” says Barlett. The group dined at pricey steakhouses, including Morton’s and The Capital Grill, and Barlett says veterans were free to invite Washington-area friends to join them for dinner and drinks.
“You should have seen the way they threw money around. It was unbelievable. Scott had a wad of fifty dollar bills that he would pull out and just like, pick up the tab at the bar and do this and that. I thought, ‘I don’t know who hired you, but it had to be somebody with deep pockets’,” she says.
Deep indeed—and yet, Saudi Arabia may not have received the best lobbying product.
“It was extremely disorganized. We’d be parading from office to office. There was no rhyme or reason…who we were going to see, the strategy, no pre-contacts, no advanced literature distributed to any of the staffers. It was kind of embarrassing,” says Barlett.
Barlett felt like vets were little more than props: “(Wheeler) did not seem that concerned with the veracity of the argument. He was just more concerned that we had a large group of veterans who were basically window dressing. He even told a lot of us, ‘You don’t have to talk. I’ll just go around the room and introduce everybody and you can say where you’re from’.”
Other Vets Comfortable with Saudi Backing
Some veterans contacted by 28Pages.org say that, even though they’re learning of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of their effort for the first time, they aren’t alarmed by the kingdom’s role because they still believe JASTA should be altered.
Navy veteran Jacqueline Wright, via email, says, “While I do firmly believe that Saudi Arabia is literally a cancer on the world, our interests are temporarily aligned in this particular instance, though obviously for vastly different reasons. This isn’t to say that I support Saudi Arabia’s motives. It merely means that it doesn’t surprise me that they recognize the risk from this bill and act accordingly in their own self-interests.”
Michael Blickensderfer, an attorney and Marine veteran in Tampa who traveled to Washington in December and January, says, “I don’t think it takes away anything from the lobbying effort.”
Owens, who recruited several veterans to participate in Wheeler’s lobbying activity, says, “It would have been a good thing to know. It doesn’t change the argument. It doesn’t change whether JASTA is a good bill or not.” (He says he was not compensated for soliciting others to join the effort.)
“I think the law is extremely broad and needs to be modified,” he says. Given his conviction, Owens is ambivalent about who funded his trip: “If someone’s going to assist us to have a voice…why would I turn it down?”
Still Swayed by Dubious Argument
Owens and other veterans say they remain concerned that, if other countries adopt their own version of JASTA, individual U.S. service members and veterans would be sued in foreign courts.
That argument, which is central to Saudi Arabia’s recruitment of veterans—and which has been used by Saudi-friendly senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in leading the assault on JASTA—rests on false premises, according to William S. Dodge, former counselor on international law at the State Department.
“JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts,” said Dodge in a February interview for our thorough examination of the principal arguments advanced in the Saudi lobbying scheme.
JASTA only authorizes suits against foreign governments, not individuals. That fact was underscored last month when attorneys for 9/11 families, newly empowered by JASTA, filed an amended complaint to add the government of Saudi Arabia—and only the government of Saudi Arabia—as a defendant.
Long before learning about Wheeler’s Saudi sponsors, Barlett, an attorney herself, had already concluded that the argument about dangers to individual veterans was empty. “It’s not true. After I read the law pretty well and I read some commentaries about it, I thought, ‘No, this isn’t going to affect us at all. It’s just a big fat lie’,” she says.
She says her conviction was so great that she wrote a detailed opinion discounting the validity of the argument and emailed it to Wheeler, and also attacked it in person.
“I told him during the first trip, and in an email, and in the presence of other people in our group that the argument that this law would impact service members was the weakest argument he had, and yet that’s the argument he wanted everyone to be parroting,” says Barlett.
Wright takes offense at suggestions that veterans who lobbied against JASTA were tricked into doing so. “I find it highly insulting to veterans when the opposition implies that we can be misled and manipulated so easily when the bill is only three pages long.”
Dodge, who teaches international law at the University of California Davis, questions the notion that the law’s effect is easily grasped by a novice—or even an international law expert.
“JASTA is a complicated statute that involves the interaction of several different bodies of federal law. I have been studying these issues for two decades and still had to read it multiple times to understand all of its implications,” he says.
UPDATE: After this story was published, Wright contacted 28Pages.org. “My number one argument against JASTA is that it took the authority of designating who is and who is not a sponsor of terrorism from the State Department, with all the intelligence agencies, and places it in the hands of local district judges…who do not have access to all our intelligence,” she says via phone.
Saudi Arabia has not been designated a state sponsor of terror. Asked if she thought the kingdom was a state sponsor of terror, Wright says, “Of course I do, but that’s for the State Department to decide.”
Wright says she’s also concerned about secrets leaking during the discovery process of a trial, jeopardizing service members. Declaring that “full repeal (of JASTA) would be ideal,” she says 9/11 families should seek a negotiated settlement with Saudi Arabia without suing. Apparently referring to President Trump, she says, “My idea was, we’ve got a negotiator-in-chief. He prides himself on deal-making. I’m sure he’d love to have a legacy of where he got Saudi Arabia to compensate the families.”
Group Sought to Distance Itself from Trump-Based Operation
Wheeler’s groups seems to have operated completely independently from the previously-documented Trump hotel contingent, which was organized by lobbyists for Qorvis.
Some in Wheeler’s group knew that a separate group of veterans was operating out of the Trump hotel—and took a dim view of them.
“(They) were…behaving in an unprofessional manner, and generally being an embarrassment to our mission there, causing scenes, staying at lavish places like Trump Tower, wasting tons of money on booze,” says Wright.
Owens says the Trump hotel contingent had a bad reputation on Capitol Hill. “We were getting some pushback because they were thinking we were associated with those guys,” he says.
“We were asked to be professional and disavow that group should anyone ask.
says Wright. “Scott assured us that the organization that controlled our group, the National Republican Trust PAC, was not connected to theirs, and I have no reason to doubt that,” says Wright.
Wright’s understanding that Wheeler’s effort was being conducted under the auspices of the National Republican Trust PAC may be significant. Wheeler registered his political consulting firm—Capitol Media Group—with the DOJ, but not the PAC that he directs. Veterans who believed the lobbying was a conservative PAC operation may have been far less inclined to inquire about outside sponsorship.
Wright’s comment isn’t the first indication of National Republican Trust PAC’s links to JASTA lobbying. As we reported last week, a DOJ filing by Qorvis included an open letter to Congress from veterans that used the PAC’s letterhead.
Vet Open to Returning to Washington at Saudi Expense
While the trips appear to have halted in early March, Owens is ready for more.
“Given an opportunity to return to continue to work on the issue and if I knew the money was coming straight out of Riyadh’s back pocket, I would take it because it would be an opportunity to have my voice heard,” says Owens, who spent the bulk of his career in military intelligence.
He agrees, though, that he and his fellow veterans are owed better transparency by Saudi Arabia’s lobbyists: “From this moment forward, if (more veteran lobbying trips happen), bring it out in the open. I think, down the chain, it should be completely open and honest about what we’re doing.”
Despite the stark contrast between Wheeler’s disclosure documents and the account he says Wheeler gave him, Owens says, “I’ve got no reason to think that Scott would ever lie to me.”
Barlett has a different view: “(Wheeler) is the kind of person that, now having had my eyes opened about the whole situation, I deeply regret having anything to do with him because I find him to be very dishonest.”
Saudi Lobbying Scandal: The Timeline
Feb. 7: Daily Caller is first to report that Qorvis is flying veterans to Washington to lobby against JASTA and housing them at the Trump International hotel.
- One veteran who was solicited but did not attend tells Daily Caller that the individual recruiting him refused to say who was funding the effort. But the question remained: Were veterans who actually traveled to DC kept in the dark?
Feb. 23: In a 28Pages.org exclusive, three Marine veterans reveal for the first time that veterans brought to Washington by Qorvis weren’t told Saudi Arabia had paid their way.
- The principal organizer, speaking to some 40 veterans at the Trump hotel, gave an unsolicited denial of Saudi involvement in their undertaking.
- Another leader of the effort expressed joy over the prospect that JASTA could be altered in such as way as to prevent 9/11 families from suing Saudi Arabia.
- Veterans didn’t leave printed material with legislators and were told to say they were concerned veterans “up here on your own.”
March 29: A group of 9/11 families and survivors files a complaint with the Department of Justice.
- DOJ is asked to investigate leads pointing to broad lobbying misconduct by Qorvis and its associates.
April 3: More veterans come forward to corroborate our February 23 story.
April 10: 28Pages.org reports that Scott Wheeler’s Capitol Media Group registered with the DOJ as an agent of Saudi Arabia—months later than required.
- Firm said it was paid $90,000 to bring three groups of 25 to 35 veterans to Washington to lobby for changes to JASTA.
April 19: In today’s 28Pages.org exclusive, veterans recruited by Wheeler’s Capitol Media Group say they weren’t told Saudi Arabia was behind the effort.