Figure in vet lobbying scandal returns to collect another $79,000; Qorvis rubs elbows with secretive opposition research firm
By Brian P. McGlinchey
Lobbying and public relations firm Qorvis MSLGROUP has filed its latest semiannual disclosure forms with the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agent Registration Act office, covering the period from October 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018.
Qorvis plays a central role in the expansive Saudi effort to influence not only U.S. foreign policy and public opinion, but even the American judicial system. Here are some points of interest from the new filing, which was submitted more than a month after the DOJ deadline; as you’ll see, tardiness continues to be a recurring theme in the Qorvis operation.
Qorvis declared that it “continues to provide public relations and other assistance to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a monthly retainer of $279,500, with occasional events management and research projects on an expense basis.” The retainer equates to $3,354,000 a year.
Qorvis received $248,606 in expense reimbursements during the six-month reporting period, which encompassed most of the weeks-long, nationwide public relations tour of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Via Qorvis alone, Saudi Arabia spent more than $1.7 million on “event support” and more than $200,000 on travel.
Spinning the War in Yemen
London-based Pagefield Global Counsel was paid almost $280,000 for communications consulting plus $104,000 for travel costs. In February, IRIN reported that the firm, which boasts of expertise in crisis communications, has helped efforts to promote the Saudi narrative on its war in Yemen.
The new DOJ filing indicates that Qorvis launched and manages yemenplan.org, a site that publicizes Saudi Arabia’s efforts to alleviate catastrophic conditions in Yemen caused by Saudi Arabia’s attacks on and blockade of Yemen.
Searching the DOJ database, 28Pages.org was unable to locate FARA registrations for Pagefield or its employees. Asked if the registration requirement applies to foreign citizens operating in the United States, a DOJ staffer could only say that, depending on the circumstances, “it’s possible.”
Contact with Secretive British Opposition Research Firm
Qorvis disclosed that it engaged with representatives of various businesses “in connection with an event hosted by the Saudi ambassador.” Some—Bloomberg, General Motors and Amazon—are household names.
One of the businesses, however, goes out of its way to avoid publicity: Hakluyt & Company. Headquartered in London, Hakluyt (rhymes with “backlit”) was founded by three former members of MI6—the United Kingdom’s CIA equivalent—and specializes in providing opposition research for governments and large corporations.
Consistent with its preference to operate in the shadows, the firm’s website consists solely of a single page that only lists its office locations.
At times, Hakluyt has gone to extraordinary and controversial lengths to fulfill its missions. For example, in 2001, The Sunday Times (London) reported that Hakluyt, working on behalf of BP and Shell, arranged for an agent to infiltrate Greenpeace by posing as a leftist sympathizer and filmmaker.
Qorvis also disclosed engaging with KKR Global Institute, which is chaired by former CIA director David Petraus, and RiceHadleyGates, a strategic consulting firm created by three Bush administration alumni: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and former of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Syracuse Academic Turned in Homework Late
Last month, 28Pages.org reported that Bill Smullen, the director of a national security program at Syracuse University, had registered to provide public relations support to the embassy of Saudi Arabia.
When informed that a Saudi public relations agent was supervising a program that shapes the views of U.S. military and intelligence officials, Congressman Walter Jones said it “should cause major unease for all Americans.”
The new Qorvis filing indicates that Smullen, a former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has received $8,000 for service to the kingdom—and that he was in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act for more than four months, as he was late in registering with the DOJ.
When interviewed in early June, Smullen stressed he had yet to perform any work for the kingdom. Now, he tells 28Pages.org he did work for the kingdom in March.
See our full report on the latest developments in the Smullen story.
Organizer of Controversial Veterans Lobbying Effort Returns
Last year, 28Pages.org readers were introduced to Scott Wheeler and Capitol Media Group, the firm he runs as a sole practitioner. Then, Wheeler earned more than $90,000 from Saudi Arabia and Qorvis by convincing well-intentioned U.S. military veterans that the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) posed a risk to U.S. servicemembers (it doesn’t), and then bringing them to Washington to lobby for changes to the law.
Participating veterans said Wheeler didn’t tell them he’d recruited them on behalf of Saudi Arabia, much less that the kingdom was using them to try to weaken JASTA and prevent 9/11 victims from pursuing allegations that Saudi officials helped facilitate the terror plot.
In March 2017, Capitol Media Group registered with the DOJ, months later than the FARA deadline, but just two days after 9/11 families filed a complaint with the DOJ alleging widespread FARA violations in the Saudi campaign against JASTA—including the failure of many individuals to register.
Wheeler refused multiple requests for interviews. After 28Pages.org publicized his tardy registration and failure to disclose the Saudi hand in his activities, he told veterans and the Augusta Chronicle that he himself hadn’t been informed Saudi Arabia was behind the anti-JASTA campaign.
His crisis communications plan also included a ranting group email to veterans he’d recruited to the lobbying campaign, warning them against fielding inquiries from this writer. He courteously copied me on the email, in which he not so courteously described me as a “sleazy nut-job,” “conspiracy junkie,” “creepy loner” and “despicable liar” with an apparent “mental illness.”
Despite receiving negative publicity in follow-on reporting by The American Conservative and Associated Press, Wheeler returned to the Saudi trough during the latest reporting period, as Capitol Media Group received $79,000 for “communications consultant” services, according to the new filing.
Though it’s not clear what Wheeler was up to this time around, Qorvis disclosed that, on top of the $79,000 fee, Capitol Media Group received $35,100 to cover travel expenses, giving reason to wonder if he was once again bringing citizens to Capitol Hill.
If he did, a review of the DOJ’s database gives no discernible indication of a corresponding set of new foreign agent registrations.
The registration requirement applies regardless of whether one’s effort for a foreign government is compensated, according to Lydia Dennett of the Project on Government Oversight. “It’s very strictly not about compensation. It’s specifically about who is controlling or supervising or benefitting from the activities,” she told 28Pages.org last year.
In the previous JASTA lobbying campaign, upwards of 150 or more veterans were brought to Washington by Wheeler and other Saudi agents at Saudi expense to advance the Saudi agenda, and none registered with the DOJ. Of course, the great majority apparently had no idea Saudi Arabia was behind the operation, and had they been instructed to register with the DOJ, there’s little doubt that recruiting would have proved far more difficult.
When he condemned the Qorvis lobbying campaign last year, Senator John Cornyn noted the implications of the failure to disclose Saudi sponsorship: “They put these American veterans at legal risk” by having them operate as unregistered agents of the kingdom, he said.
Despite a detailed, 17-page complaint being filed by 9/11 families, there’s been no indication of DOJ action regarding the Qorvis anti-JASTA campaign.
Is This DC Socialite an Unregistered Saudi Agent?
Donovan owns publicity firm Creative Enterprises International and the Hollywood on the Potomac website. The latter is billed as a place “where Hollywood meets Main Street in the Nation’s Capitol.”
Via email, Donovan tells 28Pages.org that she helped promote a Saudi Arabia National Day event hosted by ambassador Khalid bin Salman at the National Building Museum.
“When (Qorvis) want(s) social coverage, they sometimes hire me and I help with their guest list and coverage. Saudi National Day was one of their social events projects,” she says. By “coverage,” she says she means promoting the event to “outlets that normally cover diplomatic events.”
Donovan herself posted a gushing recap of the event at Hollywood on the Potomac. Entitled “The Saudi Vision!“, it reproduced large swaths of the ambassador’s speech and three paragraphs of biographical copy from a Saudi embassy press release.
Donovan says covering events like Saudi National Day is standard fare at Hollywood on the Potomac, and she would’ve written about it even if she hadn’t been hired to promote it to other outlets.
While it appears Donovan’s publicity duties may have necessitated registering with the DOJ as an agent of the kingdom, she says Qorvis hadn’t instructed her to do so and that, prompted by my inquiry, she has sent Qorvis an email asking if she has a duty to register. She did not respond to a follow-up message asking if Qorvis had answered her.
Writer Who Lamented War on Terror Cashes In With Kingdom
Among those compensated during the reporting period for aiding Saudi public relations efforts was Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna, a former writer for Wall Street Journal Europe who acted as a media consultant. She has duly registered with the DOJ.
Her writing has frequently appeared at the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute. Her work for Saudi Arabia seems odd, given the the Mises Institute’s embrace of peace, non-interventionism and limited government, and the kingdom’s long-standing record of exporting extremism, destabilizing countries and displaying contempt for human rights.
In a December 2017 essay for the institute lamenting the decline of protest art, Christoff-Kurapovna asked, “Where are the poignant ballads against the spread of terror or the failures of the so-called ‘War on Terror’?”
I asked her how she reconciles that sentiment with her work for a government that stands credibly accused of facilitating the attack that launched the war on terror and continuing to spread extremism since.
“The art world is and has been a separate interest,” she tells 28Pages.org via email, describing Saudi Arabia as “an ally and one with wonderful individuals.” Qorvis disclosed that it paid Christoff-Kurapovna $5,250; she says that amount isn’t correct, but hasn’t said what is actually was.
Mises.org editor Ryan McMaken says he evaluates article submissions on their individual merits. “During my tenure…my editorial preferences have leaned very much toward criticism of the Saudi regime,” he says.
The contradiction between Christoff-Kurapovna’s work for Saudi Arabia and her association with the Mises Institute is now immaterial: Though her latest essay at Mises.org ran just last month, Christoff-Kurapovna says, “I no longer write for the Mises Institute.”