“This kind of conduct should gall every member of the Senate”
By Brian P. McGlinchey
In a high-profile hearing today, Senator John Cornyn condemned Saudi lobbyists for exploiting U.S. military veterans in their campaign to weaken a law enabling 9/11 family members and survivors to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the attacks.
“According to press reports, agents of the Saudi government recruited American veterans, flew them to Washington, wined and dined them and put them up in fancy hotels and provided them with false information to provide to members of Congress. They didn’t tell these American heroes who was sponsoring them and who they were serving,” said Cornyn.
Cornyn’s remarks appear to be the first public statement on the Saudi campaign by any federal official, and they come five months after 28Pages.org revealed that lobbyists who had flown veterans to Washington to push for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) did not inform them—or the members of Congress they called on—that Saudi Arabia had orchestrated and funded their trips.
Alleged Violations of Lobbying Law
Today’s judiciary committee hearing focused on the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which promotes transparency by requiring individuals lobbying and performing public relations duties for foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice, and to disclose their sponsorship to those they seek to persuade.
Qorvis MSLGROUP and associated Saudi lobbyists, however, appear to have run roughshod over both the spirit and letter of FARA by failing to inform veterans of the kingdom’s role, failing to include disclosures on informational materials used in their recruitment and, often, failing to register with the DOJ.
“A number of firms did not file under FARA until outraged veterans and press reports revealed their activities,” said Cornyn.
That remark may have been a reference to, among others, Capitol Media Group, which is owned by Scott Wheeler.
As first reported by 28Pages.org, Wheeler’s firm registered months later than required under law—but just days after a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a formal complaint with Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking an investigation of at least 10 different types of apparent FARA violations by Qorvis and the many dozens of individuals and firms it engaged for the anti-JASTA campaign.
According to his FARA registration, Wheeler was paid $90,000 plus expenses by Saudi Arabia to bring three groups of 25 to 35 veterans to Capitol Hill to lobby for changes to JASTA. Veterans who accepted his invitation to lobby against JASTA told 28Pages.org that Wheeler did not inform them Saudi Arabia was behind the effort.
An even larger veterans lobbying operation led by Jason Johns used the Trump International DC as its headquarters and flew in approximately six or seven groups which sometimes included upwards of 50 veterans at a time.
Johns is accused of not only failing to disclose his Saudi sponsorship to veterans, but of actively denying any Saudi role. According to recent disclosures, Qorvis paid Wheeler’s firm $375,991 to cover his fees and veterans’ travel expenses; Johns received $825,990.
“This kind of conduct should gall every member of the Senate and it proves that other countries will go to great lengths to undermine the United States government. Unfortunately, they can do so unchecked and with little threat of punishment and that must change,” said Cornyn.
Lax Enforcement Encourages Misconduct
Though willful violations of FARA are punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000, enforcement of the law is extremely rare—a point underscored in today’s hearing by Senator Diane Feinstein.
“Over the past 50 years, the Justice department has prosecuted only seven (people) in FARA cases. Instead, where violations are discovered, the department encourages compliance, creating a system where there are no consequences for failing to follow the law,” said Feinstein.
Meanwhile, there has been no indication that the Justice Department is investigating the Saudi campaign—which imperiled the veterans it preyed upon.
“They put these American veterans at legal risk,” said Cornyn, apparently referring to the fact that anyone performing lobbying duties on behalf of a foreign government must register with the DOJ—regardless of whether one’s work is compensated or not.
Given that, every veteran who participated in this campaign—and there may have been 200 or more of them—should have registered. Of course, had they been advised that their invitation to Washington was being extended on behalf of Saudi Arabia, fewer veterans would have agreed to participate, much less be willing to register as agents of the kingdom credibly linked to the orchestrators of 9/11.
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.
- 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. The question remained: Were veterans who actually traveled to DC also 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: 28Pages.org reports that veterans recruited by Wheeler’s Capitol Media Group say they weren’t told Saudi Arabia was behind the effort.
July 26: Senator John Cornyn condemns Saudi lobbyists’ exploitation of veterans in anti-JASTA lobbying campaign; he is the first federal official to publicly comment on it.
This scandal has not yet been reported by the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.