Slick TV ads sponsored by a Saudi lobbying group aimed at influencing President Donald Trump were actually produced by a major D.C. lobbying shop linked to Hillary Clinton.
The Podesta Group—which was co-founded by her campaign chair John Podesta and is chaired by his brother, Tony—helped produce the ads, which began airing last month and urge the White House to cut ties with the Gulf state of Qatar for alleged support of terrorism. But the ads only mention the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee or SAPRAC.org, making no link to Podesta, a practice which may have skirted U.S. lobbying laws.
“One country in the gulf region is a threat to global security: Qatar,” the ad’s female narrator cautions. It warns that Qatar is a sponsor of terrorism and “undermines” unnamed U.S. allies in the region. “President Trump, Qatar cannot be trusted,” text in the ad concludes.
The message echoes the official line from a Saudi-led group of countries that broke ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of funding terrorism and maintaining close ties with Iran—charges Doha denies.
The ad campaign has aired frequently during cable news shows and even during last month’s British Open golf tournament. SAPRAC executive director Reem Daffa told The Daily Beast it picked that airtime knowing “that President Donald Trump is an avid golfer and spectator.”
The problem is that SAPRAC worked with the Podesta Group to produce the video, according to two sources familiar with the matter, who spoke anonymously in order to discuss what they saw as legally questionable cooperation.
They shared an in-house video file with The Daily Beast which labels the ad as a joint Podesta-SAPRAC product and says it was crafted by Nicholas Bruckman of People's TV, a video firm that has previously produced other videos for the Podesta Group. People’s TV did not respond to inquiries about its work.
The Podesta Group confirmed to The Daily Beast that it works with SAPRAC, but declined to specify the exact activities it conducts. “We are in the process of submitting public disclosure forms for this representation which will answer any questions you might have,” David Marin, a spokesman for the firm, emailed on Friday.
That collaboration raises red flags among some experts on U.S. lobbying disclosure laws. While Podesta is registered as an official agent of the Saudi government, SAPRAC has not registered as an agent of a foreign government. Yet by allegedly producing this video, it worked with one of the many firms representing Saudi Arabia in Washington advancing the Kingdom’s geopolitical interests.
The legal question hinges on who is directing or financially supporting SAPRAC’s work. On its face, the group is modeled on organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which presses for policies that often align with the Israeli government’s interests. But AIPAC is not directed or financed by that government, allowing it to disclose lobbying activities as any other domestic group would.
SAPRAC has gone the same route, meaning its lobbying disclosures are less detailed than those of official foreign agents, who are bound by a different law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That law places additional disclosure requirements on lobbying and public relations firms that advance the interests of foreign governments at the direction of, or using resources provided by, those governments.
In contrast to groups like AIPAC and SAPRAC, the Podesta Group is a registered foreign agent. It lobbies and conducts public relations advocacy on behalf of a number of foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia’s through a state entity called the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court.
SAPRAC’s lack of FARA registration implies that its work is not directed or financed by the Saudi government, and the group makes a point of noting in the organization’s publications that its positions don’t reflect those of the Kingdom. But those publications, and the group’s work generally, seem to toe the Saudi government line on major geopolitical issues, including the country’s ongoing spat with Qatar.
SAPRAC’s founder Salman Al-Ansari did not respond to calls or emailed requests for comment. The Saudi embassy spokesman in Washington, D.C., declined to comment.
Lydia Dennet, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, says the nature of the group’s work, taken together with its apparent collaboration with Podesta—a connection that Dennett said “definitely seems sketchy”—raises questions about its failure to register as a foreign agent.
She compared it to the case of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who this year retroactively disclosed lobbying work on behalf of the government of Turkey. “Flynn's FARA registration requirement was triggered because the primary beneficiary of his work was a foreign government, even though he was technically hired by a private foreign company,” Dennett explained. “So even if SAPRAC is not technically part of the Saudi government, if the work done on their behalf is mostly beneficial to the Saudi government (perhaps as indicated by the connection to the Podesta Group) that might trigger a FARA registration.”
Though federal law requires the timely disclosure of lobbying and public relations on behalf foreign governments, civil penalties and criminal prosecutions against entities that fail to disclose are extremely rare. The Justice Department, which oversees FARA compliance, brought just seven criminal complaints over violations of the law from 1966 to 2015. It has not sought civil injunctive relief under the law since 1991.
SAPRAC’s apparent lack of foreign agent disclosure, Dennett said, “is an excellent example of how unclear FARA requirements truly are,” and how some in the influence business seek to evade its stricter disclosure requirements by presenting their activities as standard, LDA-compliant lobbying.
In addition to its ad campaign, SAPRAC also launched a website, The Qatar Insider, a few weeks after the Qatar crisis erupted. The site calls itself “the comprehensive source for information on the truth about Qatar’s funding, activities and support for terrorist and extreme Islamist groups.”
The Qatar Insider has even engaged in accusing Doha of hiding one of the men accused of carrying out the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. “That just brings up a lot of questions about Saudi Arabia and its broader involvement in 9/11,” said Andrew Bowen, of the American Enterprise Institute. “Trying to link Qatar into that only really damages the broader Gulf in most Americans’ eyes.”
SAPRAC’s public relations push comes as Saudi Arabia ramps up its Washington lobbying and public relations efforts, which have ballooned since the Kingdom fought legislation last year to allow victims of state-sponsored terrorism to sue the governments financing or supporting it. More than a dozen individuals and firms have registered as Saudi agents under FARA since last year, according to DOJ records.
The Podesta Group is among the Kingdom’s most influential representatives in Washington. In Justice Department filings, the firm’s employees have reported pressing their client’s interests with scores of federal agencies, members of Congress, reporters, and think tanks.
The firm is run by veteran Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta, who raised six-figure sums for Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Her campaign was chaired by John Podesta, Tony’s brother.
The Podesta Group has previously been forced to retroactively disclose lobbying activities on behalf of its foreign government clients in the wake of news stories highlighting discrepancies in its FARA reporting.
—With additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich