In the middle of the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney’s campaign had an unusual moment. The Republican billed himself as a foreign policy hawk who would stand up to the Kremlin. But on May 9, 2012, one of his foreign policy advisers, lobbyist Vin Weber, signed a little-noticed contract with a man in Vladimir Putin’s wider orbit. It was a deal that would reverberate for years to come.
Weber spent twelve years in Congress, where he worked alongside Newt Gingrich, did a stint in Republican leadership, and built relationships on both sides of the aisle. Then headed to K Street, where he became one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists. From 2001 to 2009, he was chairman of the board at the National Endowment for Democracies, which boosts human rights and democracy activists around the world.
But their paths crossed. One year, Weber was a hero for democracy. The next, he was (unwittingly, per his firm) a Putin ally’s flack.
And now, Weber and his firm have been roped into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential coordination between Team Trump and the Kremlin. A spokesperson for Weber’s firm said they are cooperating with Mueller’s probe, and confident they didn’t do anything wrong.
It’s a particularly unusual situation for Weber, who was chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for a time. NED is a non-profit—largely funded by Congress—that makes grants to support pro-Democracy efforts, including media outlets, labor groups, and human rights organizations. After years of working in Russia, Putin banned it from the country.
In 2010, the organization gave Weber their Democracy Service Medal at a Capitol Hill ceremony. Carl Gershman, the organization’s president, praised Weber as “a sophisticated and articulate voice for international democracy assistance in the broader policy and political communities.”
The NED’s website thanks Weber’s lobbying firm (then called Clark & Weinstock) for supporting the event.
Two years later, in 2012, Weber sowed the seeds for his Mueller encounter. At the time, Manafort was working for Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s Kremlin-allied president. Some in Yanukovych’s government were pushing for the country to sign an agreement with the European Union that would have warmed their relations. But they didn’t want to make the democratic reforms Western governments would have demanded. Also, Yanukovych’s top political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, was imprisoned at the time, and they didn’t want to let her out.
So Yanukovych and his allies hired a phalanx of lobbyists—through Paul Manafort and his then-deputy, Rick Gates—to try to persuade leaders in Washington and Brussels that reforms wouldn’t be necessary for Ukraine and the EU to grow closer, and that Tymoshenko’s imprisonment was above board.
By signing a contract with a group called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, Weber became part of that phalanx.
After Weber took the job, his firm alerted Congress that they were lobbying for the Centre. The filing was up for two months before a reporter at The Daily Beast found it, and wrote a story noting the incongruity of a Romney adviser flacking for a country whose repressive government was cozying up to Putin.
The Romney campaign didn’t comment for that story. But Lucy-Claire Saunders, a spokesperson for Weber’s lobbying firm, released a statement that was unequivocal.
“The Party of Regions does not provide any direct or indirect financial support for the Centre,” she said, “however they do share the philosophy that it is in Ukraine’s long-term interests to further integrate and align with the West.”
That wasn’t true.
In fact, as the firm now acknowledges, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions funded the Centre, and used it to pay Weber and others to push for Western countries to lessen their pressure on Ukraine.
The fact that Weber had any affiliation at all with a group allied with the Party of Regions generated concerns within the Romney campaign, according to a former campaign staffer.
“Vin Weber’s association with the Centre during the campaign certainly caused us heartburn,” the former staffer said. “But we were assured it was not funded directly or indirectly by Yanukovych’s ruling party. That turned out to be a lie. If we had known the truth at the time, we certainly would have cut ties with him. We were lied to.”
Weber’s firm said they were lied to as well—by none other than Gates, Manafort’s deputy. The firm says the Centre assured them, verbally and in writing, that it didn’t get government funding.
“Rick Gates pleaded guilty to making false statements,” Michael McKeon, a partner at MercuryLLC, told The Daily Beast. “He admitted he didn’t tell the truth to the Government and didn’t tell the truth to our lawyers when he spoke to them about this project. While he and others involved with this matter may have acted criminally and tried to hide it, we have acted appropriately, following our counsel’s advice from the start. We will continue to cooperate with the Special Counsel because we are confident we acted appropriately throughout.”
Filings from Mueller’s team say Rick Gates lied to Mercury LLC about its funding.
Some say the firm should have known better. Orest Deychakiwsky, who’s since retired, was a staffer at the pro-democracy Helsinki Commission when Weber’s lobbying was underway. Weber’s firm set up a meeting for him with a Ukrainian government official as part of the outreach.
“They should have known better than to take an NGO like this at its word,” he told The Daily Beast.
He and others said the news about Weber—that he took Yanukovych’s side—surprised them.
“I was surprised that a former chair of the National Endowment for Democracy was, for all practical purposes, working in tandem with the Yanukovych regime,” he said.
In tandem with the regime—and with Paul Manafort. Years after the lobbying work was completed (it wasn’t successful), Mercury LLC filed detailed, belated disclosure forms with the Justice Department. Those filings reveal how much work Weber put in for the Ukrainian government. He and his team connected Washington power brokers, on and off the Hill, with Ukrainian government officials and their allies. Weber and Manafort went to four meetings together, according to the filings. And one of those meetings was with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who is unusually supportive of just about every Kremlin agenda item and has now fielded questions from House and Senate Trump/Russia investigators.
Years later, Mueller noticed. The Special Counsel’s first indictment of Manafort and Gates referred to Mercury LLC as “Company A,” and detailed the work they did with Trump’s future campaign boss. Another charging document focused on Rick Gates singles him out for lying about a meeting Manafort had with an unnamed congressman and lobbyist. The congressman was Rohrabacher, and the lobbyist was Weber.
It isn’t Weber’s only point of overlap with the Mueller probe. His firm also represents a Turkish business organization whose former chairman, Ekim Alptekin, hired Michael Flynn to lobby in 2016, as Politico noted.
Weber also lobbied for Kremlin-controlled oil giant Gazprom, according to disclosures filed with the Justice Department on Jan. 6, 2012. The Atlantic Council concluded in May of 2017 that a major Gazprom pipeline project in northern Europe “jeopardizes the security interests of the United States and its EU allies.”
“Gazprom didn’t know anyone,” Weber told Politico Magazine in its Jan/Feb 2015 issue. “So we just introduced them. Once you’ve established the relationships, then you can sit down.”
Mueller’s probe has left K Street shaken, with lobbyists scrambling to update their filings. And it destroyed the Podesta Group, a Democratic-aligned firm that also worked with Manafort and Weber. Mercury LLC has stayed intact, and is raking in more business than ever. Weber hasn’t slowed down either. The firm’s latest Justice Department fillings show he’s been busy making calls and setting up meetings for the government of Qatar.