Last month, an impressive group of Republican figures gathered at the National Press Club for a panel on official government corruption. The list of speakers included Ken Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated Bill Clinton; National Review columnist John Fund; and Sidney Powell, a former federal prosecutor who last week signed on to defend former Trump National Security Adviser Mike Flynn.
What had drawn them there was an unveiling of the Global Justice Foundation, a new nonprofit that bills itself as a global anti-corruption group. Fund and Starr are employees. Powell chairs its board. And they aren’t the only luminaries involved. Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele and former Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) are associated with the foundation as well.
The Global Justice Foundation’s focus, thus far, has been on one instance of corruption more than a decade ago, which makes its ability to recruit some top-notch D.C. talent all the more remarkable. While virtually everyone involved in the organization who discussed it with The Daily Beast lauded the foundation’s anti-corruption message, their involvement underscores the opaque avenues that Washington power-brokers can take to go about affecting U.S. policy—whether on their own behalf or others’. The group is too new for any information on its finances to have trickled into public view. Its immediate focus appears to be an esoteric issue affecting few beyond the group’s own founder. And even one of the foundation’s board members wasn’t initially aware that he was on the board until he was told by this publication.
The Global Justice Foundation’s formation came, ironically enough, as the Justice Department more heavily scrutinizes Washington advocacy outfits with roots overseas. Indeed, Powell’s role as the chair of the foundation’s board will overlap with her representation of a man, Flynn, who landed in the sights of federal prosecutors due to his failure to disclose lobbying for Turkish government interests.
Flynn’s case doesn’t substantially resemble that of the Global Justice Foundation. But both do reflect how prominent figures in Washington can often advance policy issues in ways that often obscure underlying interests.
Within weeks of the foundation’s launch, a top Republican-aligned public affairs firm had helped the foundation land half a dozen glowing write-ups in major conservative publications such as Townhall and RedState. Some of them hyped the foundation’s claims that it would expose groundbreaking allegations of official wrongdoing, allegations that the foundation compares to scandals surrounding Enron and WikiLeaks.
Some of the group’s positive press appears to have come about organically as word of the foundation made the rounds in conservative political circles. The author of one recent column on the group, Texas Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, told The Daily Beast that he wasn’t pitched on the story. “Found them online via twitter,” Mackowiak said. “I am always looking for column ideas. The idea of fighting foreign corruption was interesting to me.”
The group so far appears focused almost entirely on one specific instance of corruption: a huge real estate deal that went bad more than a decade ago between Omar Ayesh, the foundation’s founder, and a Saudi government minister.
The sole publicly available video clip from that Press Club event shows Fund weighing in on the lack of legal accountability in Dubai, where a court in 2009 ruled against Ayesh in a major business dispute over control of the real estate firm Tameer Holding Investment.
The dispute originated in 2005, when Ayesh, a Palestinian-Canadian businessman and Tameer’s CEO at the time, brokered a deal with the Saudi Al-Rajhi Group for a huge commercial and residential development in Dubai. Four years later, Ayesh sued his business partners, alleging the company’s owners, members of Saudi Arabia’s powerful Al Rajhi family, defrauded him of $1.8 billion.
Saudi labor minister Ahmad Al-Rajhi, the other party in Ayesh’s years-old legal dispute, was “involved in one of the world's largest real estate scandals,” the foundation alleges. “The biggest scandal since Enron is about to be told.” Also complicit in the crime, Ayesh and his group claim, is the government of the United Arab Emirates, which sided with Al-Rajhi in court proceedings that Ayesh claims were rigged.
“American and foreign investors will not have faith in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as destinations for business and investments if corruption at the highest levels of government is tolerated and financial crimes by the well-connected go unpursued or unresolved,” the foundation has warned.
The group’s routine denunciations of the Saudi and Emirati governments come amidst a long-running K Street proxy war between those two countries and the government of Qatar, with which they’ve been engaged in a years-long diplomatic dispute that has frequently spilled over into domestic U.S. politics.
And it just so happens that Moran, the former congressman who sits on the foundation’s board, is also a lobbyist whose clients include the government of Qatar.
When The Daily Beast first reached out to Moran, he was surprised to discover that he was listed as a foundation board member. “Where did you see that I was on this Board?” he asked. “I don’t know enough about this organization at this time to be able to accurately answer your questions.” Asked if he was even aware of the foundation or its founder, Omar Ayesh, Moran said, “It sounds familiar but I can’t clearly recall if I have had a conversation with him.”
Moran said he would inquire with fellow board member Steele, who told The Daily Beast that they were both introduced to the group by Starr, Fund, “and a couple other mutual friends.” They “thought it would be something interesting to look at to focus, on a global square, the kinds of transactions that create problems for businesses,” Steele said.
In a followup email, Moran indicated that he is, in fact, on the group’s board. “I believe I am, but I haven’t been asked to do anything, have never received any compensation, though I’ve never asked for any, [and] have never attended” a board meeting, he wrote.
Moran is currently a “senior legislative advisor” at the firm McDermott Will & Emery, where he lobbies for clients that include the Qatari government. In that capacity, Moran has worked with members of Congress and senior administration to try to ease Saudi financial pressure on Qatar, which the Saudis accuse of financing terrorism in the region.
Asked whether that work might constitute a conflict of interest with respect to his role on the Global Justice Foundation board, a spokesperson for the group said in an emailed statement that Moran’s “experiences and knowledge of trade, foreign governments, and economic development are invaluable to the foundation and we highly regard his volunteer commitment as a board member.”
The statement did not address questions about whether any other Qataris or Qatari representatives are involved with the organization. It did say that the group is “currently studying a major case of fraud in Qatar but we have not concluded our investigation, [and] we cannot release further information.”
The foundation did not respond to a request for an interview with Ayesh. His Dubai-based real estate company, Nobles Investments, has been involved in an array of business deals in the Middle East since the Tameer one went bad. They included an effort, undertaken in concert with the government of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, to develop a beachfront resort in Tripoli. The Gaddafi regime’s endemic corruption quickly scuttled the project.
"I didn't expect influential figures within the regime would take over the project because it was lucrative,” later told the website Arabian Business. “I just hope the new Libya will not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
—with reporting by Sam Stein