Veteran’s claim: Connie Schmett recruited him to lobby for changes to JASTA, but didn’t disclose Saudi sponsorship of the effort
A gubernatorial appointee to two state boards, Schmett’s endorsement is sought by national presidential candidates
Schmett registered with the DOJ as an agent of the kingdom; Schmett & Associates received $101,500 for services rendered
By Brian P. McGlinchey
Connie Schmett, a notable figure in Iowa GOP politics and an appointee to two state government boards, recruited a military veteran to travel to Washington to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)—and he says she withheld the fact that Saudi Arabia was behind the campaign.
In October 2016, Schmett and her husband, Kim, registered with the Department of Justice as agents of the Saudi government working for changes to JASTA under the supervision of lobbying firm Qorvis MSLGROUP. According to a Qorvis disclosure filing, Schmett & Associates received $101,500 for service to the kingdom.
In an interview with 28Pages.org, Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss of Tulsa, Oklahoma also says Schmett counseled him against revealing his involvement via social media or talking to journalists and, after DeMoss learned of her status as a registered agent of the Saudi government, asked him not to share that information because she would “be in big trouble.”
Saudi Campaign Against Anti-Terror Law
Enacted in September 2016 over President Obama’s veto, JASTA modified the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow U.S. victims of terror attacks on American soil to sue foreign governments for aiding the perpetrators. The change removed a barrier that had prevented 9/11 families, survivors and insurers from suing Saudi Arabia for its alleged support of the hijackers.
Facing enormous liability claims and potential embarrassment, the Saudi government waged a furious lobbying effort to prevent JASTA’s passage, followed by an even more intense—but, thus far, fruitless—campaign to alter the law through amendments championed by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
The Schmetts were among more than 70 political influencers from across the nation urgently pressed into service by Qorvis, one of many firms engaged by the kingdom to execute a multi-pronged lobbying and public relations attack on the new law.
The most extraordinary facet of the campaign was a Qorvis-led program that turned some military veterans into unwitting agents of the Saudi government, as lobbyists provided an estimated 150 to 250 veterans with all-expenses-paid trips to Washington to lobby in person, without always disclosing who was behind it.
To recruit veterans to the anti-JASTA cause, lobbyists told them U.S. service members and veterans—even those who served in Vietnam—could face lawsuits in foreign courts if other countries retaliated with their own versions of JASTA.
Though that argument was also embraced by President Obama and a variety of establishment officials keen on preserving the status quo in U.S.-Saudi relations, it’s at odds with JASTA’s actual language, according to William S. Dodge, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law and a former counselor on international law at the State Department
In a February interview, Dodge told 28Pages.org that “JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts. JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals.”
DeMoss says Schmett presented the troops-in-peril rationale, and that he didn’t find out until he’d been flown to Washington that the kingdom was orchestrating the campaign. Many other veterans recruited by other Saudi agents have provided similar accounts.
In March, a group of 9/11 family members and survivors lodged a complaint with the Department of Justice, seeking a criminal investigation of Qorvis and its scores of foreign agents for a variety of possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), including the failure to disclose Saudi Arabia’s hand in the campaign and the failure of many involved in the effort to register as agents of the kingdom.
Texas Senator John Cornyn used a July hearing of the Senate judiciary committee to condemn the campaign, saying, “This kind of conduct should gall every member of the Senate.”
A Center of Influence in Iowa Politics
In Des Moines, the Schmetts provide lobbying services under the brand of Schmett & Associates. According to Kim Schmett’s LinkedIn page, the firm “specializes in high level grass roots and grass tops public advocacy services as well as federal lobbying activities.”
Connie Schmett serves on two Iowa government boards: the Health Facilities Council and the Iowa Cultural Trust Board of Trustees. She was appointed to both posts by then-governor Terry Branstad; she had previously served on his staff for eight years.
Schmett was a member of the Iowa leadership team for Scott Walker’s 2016 presidential campaign. When Walker withdrew, Schmett endorsed Chris Christie after the New Jersey governor tenaciously courted her and her husband with phone calls and a 45-minute meeting in his hotel room.
Last year, Schmett organized one of the largest caucuses in the state, an event that drew some 1,000 participants and personal appearances by Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson.
On Facebook, Schmett is “friends” with two other figures linked to the Saudi lobbying campaign: Wes Farno of Minster, Ohio and David Niffenegger of Des Moines. Farno registered as a Saudi agent and received $76,800.
In a search of the FARA database, Niffenegger does not appear as a registered Saudi agent, despite the fact that Marine veterans Daniel and Tim Cord say he recruited them to lobby on Capitol Hill. Along with fellow Marine David Casler, the Cords were first to reveal that some vets who were flown to Washington to lobby against JASTA were kept in the dark about Saudi Arabia’s role.
A larger Des Moines firm, LS2group, also worked for the Saudi-Qorvis campaign against JASTA, earning $76,500. Though it’s unclear if Schmett coordinated her Saudi work with the firm, Schmett is friends on Facebook with LS2group partner Charles Larson, who was appointed as ambassador to Latvia by President George W. Bush.
“She didn’t tell me who was behind it”
Air Force veteran DeMoss, who performed maintenance on F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter jets, says Schmett first contacted him on December 20 via email.
Though it began with “very good visiting with you yesterday,” DeMoss says he’d had no previous discussion with her and theorizes that she’d confused him with another veteran who has the same name. (He says Schmett told him she has relatives named DeMoss and she repeatedly emphasized their supposed kinship in building rapport with him.) He’s still unsure how she obtained his email address.
DeMoss shared the email with 28Pages.org. In it, Schmett said she “attached information about our project in protecting our military as well as other Americans on foreign soil.” The attached documents were titled “The Plan to Fix JASTA” and “The Real Impact of JASTA.” FARA requires that informational materials used to advance the agenda of a foreign government have a conspicuous statement that names the country behind the effort. Neither document had such a notice.
In addition to offering him a choice of dates for a free trip to Washington to lobby against JASTA, Schmett also used the message to urge DeMoss to send emails to “five or six” legislators, and to blind copy her when he did so.
DeMoss says something was missing, though, from this and other communications from Schmett. “She didn’t tell me who was behind it or anything like that,” he says.
“I understand the reason she couldn’t be honest and upfront, because if she had been, I wouldn’t have gone on it,” DeMoss says.
On a phone call from Schmett that followed her email, DeMoss says Schmett assured him, “You’ll have fun! You’ll fly first class and stay at the Trump hotel.”
Using Twitter to research JASTA, DeMoss says he noticed many tweets on the topic were written in Arabic, which led him to wonder what he was becoming involved in.
“I knew something was up, but I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t connect all the dots,” says DeMoss. Despite his suspicions, he decided to proceed with the trip. “I thought, if this is really bad, I can help out the other side.”
DeMoss signed up for a Jan. 10 to 13 “fly-in”—the term organizers used to describe trips that brought dozens of veterans at a time to Washington, where they stayed at the Trump International DC.
A few days before his travel, DeMoss received an email from Jason Johns, a veteran and registered Saudi agent who has been identified as the principal leader of the Trump hotel operation (as distinguished from a similar Qorvis veterans operation run by Scott Wheeler). Attached was a five-page, military-style “operations order” that exhaustingly laid out every detail of the week’s activities—except for any disclosure of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship.
The document indicated that approximately 50 veterans would target, among others, “House & Senate Leadership, Chairs and Ranking Members of Armed Services, Foreign Affairs/Relations, Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.”
The section on “Friendly Forces” did not include the Saudi government. Legislators, meanwhile, were categorized as “Enemy Forces.”
“We don’t want any leaks coming out”
DeMoss says Schmett urged him to maintain secrecy about the trip. In a Facebook message he captured and provided to 28Pages.org, she wrote, “Please be careful what you post on FB. You’re doing security work and we don’t want any leaks coming out.”
“I guess she thought she would get found out if I got found out,” he says.
Similar to observations by others, DeMoss says the on-site leaders of the veterans lobbying effort were Jason Johns, Cole Azare and brothers Dustin and Daniel Tinsley, all of whom are veterans.
DeMoss says Azare was a participant in an eyebrow-raising exchange he observed during an Uber ride to Capitol Hill with another Oklahoma veteran, Frank Vassar.
Paraphrasing the conversation, DeMoss says Vassar asked, “Hey, Cole, you know who’s paying for this, right?” He says Azare replied, “Yeah, we’ve got to keep it on the down-low.”
As they arrived at their destination, DeMoss says he asked for clarity: “I said something like, ‘Why don’t you tell me who it is? I can keep things on the down low.” He says the question went unanswered.
Vassar did not respond to an invitation to comment on DeMoss’s description of the conversation. Azare, a political consultant and veterans advocate in Reno, did. “I would say the statement is patently false,” he says.
“I would remember something like that,” he continues. “I remember that Vassar and him, we were working together that day. There was no conversation where Frank Vassar asked who was paying for it or anything like that. And there was no conversation where I would say keep something on the down-low when (the Saudi role) was publicly stated to him.”
Azare says Johns always made it a point to tell veterans at a dinner on the opening night—which served as an orientation to the week’s activities—that Qorvis had organized the operation on behalf of Saudi Arabia, just in case they hadn’t been told earlier in their recruitment. He claims it was repeated at other times as an extra measure of caution.
Other veterans, however, have previously told 28Pages.org that Johns and Azare each went beyond merely withholding information about Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of their venture to actively denying it. According to four veterans, one of those denials from Johns occurred during that opening night dinner.
DeMoss says he missed the initial gathering, but that Azare and Dustin Tinsley came to his room to brief him and did not mention Saudi Arabia. Azare agrees that the two-on-one briefing took place, but says, “I felt that we were extremely thorough…I would have reiterated everything that Jason put out at the dinner.”
Azare emphasizes that his participation was purely voluntary and uncompensated, and says he viewed the Saudi sponsorship as “a relationship of convenience for the veterans,” one that gave them the resources to lobby for a cause they believed in. He says Johns impressed upon him and others that, as they advocated for changes to JASTA, “if you find a solution that will work for veterans but is not going to make the Saudi Arabian government happy, go with the solution.”
When asked what he thought Saudi Arabia was seeking to to accomplish with its JASTA lobbying campaign, Azare says, “I really don’t know. I’ve never met anybody who was actually from Saudi Arabia.”
Lankford Staffer Pushes Back
DeMoss says that most of the legislators and staffers they called on during the week were politely attentive yet non-committal. An exception was the office of Senator James Lankford of DeMoss’s home state of Oklahoma. Legislative counsel Brittany Sadler “was very adamant that what we were trying to do was not good…I think she knew the Saudis were funding it,” he says.
As the week progressed, DeMoss says, word of the Saudi role spread among the veterans, and he received confirmation on either the last night or the last morning. During an informal conversation among veterans in the hotel lobby, he says, “Daniel Tinsley told us.”
DeMoss says he consoled a younger veteran who was particularly distraught at the news. “He probably had a lot of moral questioning. ‘Why did I do this?’ He didn’t feel right about it and didn’t know what to do,” he says.
DeMoss says that while he had doubts going in, he wasn’t at all happy to have them confirmed. “I felt like it was disgusting what they were doing,” says DeMoss—all the more so given whose interest was being served. “I don’t like the Saudis. Nobody that’s an American should like the Saudis, shouldn’t work for them or anything. Even though they’re our ‘ally,’ they sponsor terrorism all over the globe,” he says.
“All I can say is, I hope (the organizers) can get some good sleep at night, because I wouldn’t be able to if I was them,” he adds.
“Please don’t share it”
After returning home to Oklahoma and learning more about the Saudi lobbying effort, DeMoss contacted Schmett, asking if he should be concerned about what he was involved in. He says she counseled him to stay silent, telling him, “I’m telling all my veterans to stay away from the media. They’re calling us.”
Using Facebook, DeMoss sent Schmett a link to the publicly-available registration form she completed when notifying the DOJ about her relationship with the kingdom. In a screenshot DeMoss shared with 28Pages.org, Schmett replied, “PLEASE don’t share it. I’ll be in BIG trouble!” It’s not clear what kind of trouble she anticipated.
Seeking to inform those on the other side of the JASTA debate, DeMoss contacted 9/11 widow Terry Strada, who was deeply involved in working for JASTA’s passage, and related his experience to her.
DeMoss says he purposefully ingratiated himself with Johns and other organizers so he could monitor their activities. Azare says DeMoss repeatedly contacted him via Facebook messaging and “begged” to be invited back, and sees an inconsistency between that enthusiasm and his statements of dismay to 28Pages.org.
“I realized these people were fucking over veterans and I wanted to get more information on what they were doing and how far up I could go in the organization,” says DeMoss.
DeMoss found himself among a smaller group of veterans invited to conference calls and included in emails focused on the continuing drive to amend JASTA—and on responding to the controversy over their work.
DeMoss shared several of those emails with 28Pages.org. In one, Johns characterized the reporting at this site as part of a “coordinated and completely unnecessary character assassination effort” conducted in concert with 9/11 families. In another, Johns shared a link to an article in which a Saudi energy minister expressed confidence that Trump would reverse his stance on JASTA and help overturn it. His subject line was “This will make you smile :)”
An email from Azare provided suggested talking points to use in the event a veteran was “unexpectedly cornered” by a reporter, encouraging them to declare that “I was never ‘duped,’ ‘misled’ or otherwise lied to about who was paying for my travel to D.C.” That statement seems credible enough when it’s coming from Azare and others close to the top of pyramid. As for the rank and file, DeMoss is now the ninth veteran brought to Washington by the Jason Johns operation to say he wasn’t informed in timely fashion.
In his interview for this story, Azare acknowledges a possibility that some veterans didn’t find out about Saudi Arabia’s role until they first arrived in Washington. In an operation with multiple levels, he says, “eventually, the further you get from the main operation…you’re going to see things slip through the cracks. Do I believe it might have happened? Yes. Do I believe it was intentional by these people? No. At least not the people that I dealt with.”
Schmett: Saudi Arabia did not pay for trip
28Pages.org contacted Schmett to give her an opportunity to provide her own account. When presented with DeMoss’s claim that she didn’t tell him Saudi Arabia was paying for his trip, Schmett asserted that Saudi Arabia did not pay for it—that “the client” did. Presumably, she was referring to Qorvis.
Hearing that, DeMoss says, “It seems like it’s just a way for her to get out of stating that Saudi Arabia paid for it when they did. Everybody knows that Saudi Arabia paid for it. So basically, Saudi Arabia paid Qorvis, and Qorvis paid her, and then Qorvis paid for my airfare. So where did the money come from? It came from Saudi Arabia, right?”
Schmett praised DeMoss as “a very, very nice man” who “served his country very well.” On the other hand, she said 28Pages.org is “attempting to discredit the veterans and the effort to help the veterans” by amending JASTA.
“Qorvis and her and Johns discredited the veterans by not telling them that Saudi Arabia paid for it,” counters DeMoss. “And then by trying to withhold the facts regarding the actual (JASTA) law, they made us look like fools. If anybody discredited us, it’s them. We went up there and we talked to these congressmen and senators and they must have been thinking, ‘these guys are getting played.’ And so we looked like idiots on Capitol Hill.”
DeMoss says Schmett and the other lobbyists also put veterans in potential legal jeopardy. “Connie put me at risk by not giving me the full story and then not telling me that I should register (with the DOJ as an agent of Saudi Arabia). She put me at risk. That’s my name on the record.”
Senator Cornyn made a similar point about veterans being placed in legal jeopardy in the July judiciary hearing on FARA. Note that even voluntary work on behalf of a foreign government must be reported: According to an overview of FARA from the global law firm Holland & Knight, “there is no FARA de minimis rule—registration is required even if the work is done on a pro bono basis.”
I’d liked to have asked Schmett about this and many other aspects of her participation in the Saudi lobbying campaign. Before I could, she terminated the interview, declaring, “I do not give you permission to write an article about me and if you do, you will hear from my lawyer. You’ll be sued.”
According to a Qorvis filing with the DOJ, the Schmetts’ engagement to provide services to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ended on March 30 of this year.
Justice Delayed…and Denied?
Months after 9/11 families and survivors filed their complaint urging a federal investigation of the Saudi lobbying campaign against JASTA, there’s been no indication yet of action by the DOJ. Willful violations of FARA are punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000. However, there’s an awful lot hanging on the word “willful,” and FARA prosecutions are exceedingly rare—only seven cases in 50 years.
DeMoss, though, says there should be some consequence for those who he says failed to inform him and other veterans that Saudi Arabia was paying their way to Washington with a goal of derailing the 9/11 lawsuit: “If they’re doing that to veterans, there should be some kind of justice.”
If you’re a veteran or anyone else who can shed light on the Saudi-sponsored campaign against JASTA, contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org