A Controversial Operation Tricked Veterans Into Lobbying for Saudi Arabia

A firm that was part of a controversial foreign influence operation that allegedly ensnared veterans into lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia unwittingly in 2017 has again reared its head, filing what appears to be its first supplemental statement on record with the US Department of Justice.

Capitol Media Group first came under fire after veterans who were brought to Washington, DC, to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) — legislation that enabled 9/11 lawsuits against the government of Saudi Arabia — claimed they did not know their trip had been organized and financed by the Government of Saudi Arabia.

Unlike some other firms implicated in the scandal that have continued to make headlines, Capitol Media Group operated under the radar with little media exposure and even less disclosure to federal regulators charged with oversight of foreign influence operations.

In fact, Capitol Media Group did not even register as a foreign agent of Saudi Arabia until March 31, 2017 — months later than required under the Foreign Agents Registration (FARA), the law which governs most disclosure requirements for foreign lobbying, trade promotion and other influence operations. That registration came just two days after 9/11 families and survivors filed a complaint with DOJ alleging “potential widespread criminal violations” by Saudi lobbyists and foreign agents who took part in allegedly exploiting US military veterans to push for an amendment of JASTA that would restrict Americans from suing foreign governments for terrorist attacks unless they “knowingly engage with a terrorist organization directly or indirectly, including financing.”

The impetus for that registration, according to Scott Wheeler — Capitol Media Group’s owner and the executive director of the National Republican Trust PAC — was because “we found that the company we had contracted with had received Saudi money.”

In its initial registration statement, Capitol Media Group reported being paid $365,000 from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia to organize veterans’ trips at a base fee of $30,000 each plus expenses to lobby against JASTA.

Capitol Media Group filed its first supplemental statement with DOJ on October 30, 2018, months after supplemental statements coordinating to the dates of that campaign would have been required to be filed under FARA but amidst a renewed scrutiny on Saudi lobbyists and foreign agents in light of the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate.

However, that supplemental statement appears only to cover the six-month period ending September 30, 2018, more than a year after their activities lobbying for the amendment to JASTA took place.

Registrants are required to file the supplements every six months during the duration of the relationship with the foreign principal under FARA, even if they did not engage in activity on behalf of the foreign principal during the reporting period, Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center confirmed.

Joshua Rosenstein, an attorney with Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, called it “positively bizarre.”

Rosenstein said he is less concerned with why the supplemental statement was filed more than a year after the activities took place than other “substantive problems such as inconsistencies between the supplemental statement and initial filings as well as areas where “all of the boxes that are left blank.”

And that’s only the start of issues presented by the filing.

Multiple names listed as individuals who received “payment for transportation, lodging and incidental meals” are veterans who were purportedly part of the trips to Washington, DC.

The payments are reported to the veterans themselves rather than specifying which hotels or other businesses benefited from the money in Capitol Media Group’s FARA records, but records filed by Qorvis/MSLGroup — a firm that spearheaded and helped organize the trips — fill in some additional details.

A new Washington Post report based on planning documents, agendas and conversations with organizers estimated the Saudi government paid for more than 500 nights in Trump hotel rooms.

Lobbyists switched accommodations for the veterans from Northern Virginia to the Trump International Hotel in December 2016, spending more than $270,000 at the hotel Trump still owns, as first reported by the Daily Caller and confirmed in a FARA disclosure made available through the Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

Outside of JASTA lobbying, Trump’s businesses across the country have become lucrative hot-spots for foreign movers and shakers as well as US political committees.

As CRP noted in an earlier report, Trump International Hotel in Manhattan’s room revenue rose 13 percent in the first three months of 2018 after a two-year decline due to a “last minute visit” by the Saudi Crown Prince. A 2018 report to Trump Hotel Chicago investors on foreign and US customers broken down by country originally obtained by the Washington Post showed a 169 percent increase in Saudi Arabia-based patrons since 2016.

The Trump Organization claimed it would donate foreign government profits to US Treasury Department under an ethics agreement but donated just $151,470 to the US Treasury without explanation of how that amount was calculated and has continued to keep details of the agreement hidden from the public.

Escalating spending by foreign governments at Trump businesses has added fuel to the fire of probes planned by congressional Democrats as well as lawsuits alleging Trump violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause by accepting improper payments from foreign governments. A lawsuit by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is ongoing while attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland announced plans to file subpoenas for financial records and other documents related to Trump’s businesses last week.

Despite tweeting that he has “no financial interests in Saudi Arabia,” Trump told the crowd at a campaign rally as recently as 2015, “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

The rest of Capitol Media Group’s sole supplemental statement record is mostly blank without any mention of a foreign principal despite the firm registering to work for Saudi Arabia’s government and reporting payments received as a part of that arrangement in registration documents, and never terminating that agreement.

Fischer noted that a supplemental statement is supposed to be “complete in and of itself,” and therefore “cannot incorporate by reference” under the text of the pertinent federal regulations. If Capitol Media Group did terminate the agreement, it would have been required to file a termination statement memorializing the change with DOJ within 30 days.

The only other FARA records Capitol Media Group submitted to DOJ are the registration records filed in 2017, reporting payments for work on behalf of the Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia. They state that the Saudi government official that representatives of Capitol Media Group dealt with was Ambassador Abdullah ibn Faisal and describes Capitol Media Group’s activities as “direct contacts with Members of Congress and their staffs to discuss the potential effect of the legislation upon — and their concern about — the safety of US service members serving abroad in host countries, currently and in future.”

Scott Wheeler told a different story.

“There’s a lot of misinformation in regards to us,” Wheeler said in a phone interview when asked about inconsistencies between the description of Capitol Media Group’s activities in their FARA registration records and his own account. Wheeler said he has been “treated unfairly” by the press, attributing much of the buzz around his activities to earlier reporting by “clowns claiming to be journalists.”

When informed the information was directly read from a filing on record with DOJ filed by a lawyer on his behalf, Wheeler responded, “I don’t know what any of that means. I took veterans with me, but we were just explaining the military ramifications of this over time.”

“We’re not lobbyists and we’re not lobbyists for foreign governments. We did a military analysis on that law. We had no contact with the Saudi government,” Wheeler assured in the phone interview. “The only time I met anyone from a Saudi ministry was around 15 years ago as a journalist.”

Instead, Wheeler claims Capitol Media Group was merely a subcontractor for Qorvis/MSLGroup, which has long represented the Saudi government in the United States.

Notably absent from any of Capitol Media Group’s filings is any mention of Qorvis/MSLGroup or a sub-contractor relationship. Instead, Capitol Media Group reports a direct relationship with the Saudi government.

Qorvis/MSLGroup did report disbursements to Capitol Media Group of $375,991 for the six-month period through March 2017, $114,100 for the six-month period through March 2018 and $29,400 for the six-month period through September 2018 for a total of $519,491 — none of which was alluded to in the FARA disclosures filed by Capitol Media Group.

In a 2017 advisory opinion, DOJ concluded that a company did not have an obligation to register under FARA “because its contracts are with the two separate US firms–not a foreign principal. The contracts limit the role of the US company to providing meeting coordination, relationship facilitation, and cross-cultural communications clarification for the two US firms. The US company is not “at the order, request, or under the direction or control of a foreign principal” per 22 USC. § 61l(c).” However, that advisory opinion was limited to the facts and circumstances of that case.

But even if Wheeler was a subcontractor and performing political activities in that capacity for Qorvis/MSLGroup, as he claims, the activities reported in the initial filing that fall under the purview of FARA would still require him to register and file all of the necessary paperwork, Rosenstein said, noting “The extent to which they were working as a subcontractor needed to be disclosed.”

When asked multiple times for clarification from his lawyer, Wheeler said “he would refer you back to me,” “he’s indisposed,” he’s “extremely busy,” that it would be “impossible,” and ultimately asked to call him back in a week. Attempts to contact Wheeler in the weeks since that time have not been successful.

DOJ records obtained by CRP indicate Wheeler’s Carey committee, a hybrid between a PAC and a super PAC, may have also played a role in the Saudi foreign influence operation.

Informational materials used by Qorvis on behalf of Saudi Arabia include an open letter to members of Congress on the National Republican Trust PAC’s official letterhead urging them to “repeal JASTA immediately.”

The letter — using the National Republican PAC’s letterhead and included the Qorvis’ disclaimer — was also included in informational materials filed by DLA Piper, a firm that represented Saudi Arabia in 2017 but has not reported any payments corresponding to that period.

A significant portion of the money raised by Wheeler’s National Republican Trust PAC is paid out to his firm, Capitol Media Group — enough to fall on CRP’s anomaly tracker for three election cycles in a row.

Was Wheeler kept in the dark about the Saudi interests behind his influence campaign or was he part of the alleged plot to exploit unwitting military veterans for the interests of a foreign government? Without more transparency around the whole situation, it’s hard to tell.

As Wheeler put it during a phone interview, “some of that stuff caused a swirl.”

A spokesperson from the division of DOJ overseeing FARA issues declined to comment. Multiple attempts to contact the press office of the Embassy of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qorvis/MSLGroup were not returned.