Giuliani Faces Another Foreign Lobbying Mess in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The Congolese government is being pressured to investigate payments to a firm reportedly tied to Giuliani that lobbied the Trump administration to stave off sanctions.
ABUJA, Nigeria—Civil society groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo are petitioning the country’s government to investigate millions of dollars paid by the administration of then-President Joseph Kabila to an Israeli firm associated with Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. The firm’s goal: to help the Central African nation escape further economic sanctions by the U.S.
Giuliani, who served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York before becoming New York City mayor, had reportedly been negotiating a consulting deal with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through the Israel-based firm, Mer Security and Communication System. Mer’s work involved an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign aimed at easing concerns about Kabila, whose government was facing threats of additional sanctions from the Trump administration for human rights abuses and corruption.
The Congolese petitioners are primarily asking the government to find out if a fraction of the reported $8 million paid by the Kabila administration to Mer went to “so-called consultants” acting as fronts for corrupt Congolese officials. But a potential investigation could also reveal whether or not Giuliani received payment from the conflict-torn nation through the Israeli firm to act as an intermediary between the DRC and Washington.
“We are not asking officials to investigate Rudy Giuliani in particular but to find out if there was any fraud involved, as we’ve been told by our sources in government that certain individuals in the D.R. Congo benefited from the deal with Mer,” Thierry Bolasie, director of the Initiative de Puissance du Congo, or Congo Power Initiative, one of nearly a dozen civil society groups which petitioned the government, told The Daily Beast. “This isn't about the politics in America but about the transparency of officials in the D.R. Congo.”
Giuliani did not reply to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
Giuliani isn’t new to controversies when it comes to dealings between the Trump administration and overseas governments. Last year, he was a main player in the Ukraine scandal that ignited an impeachment inquiry against President Trump. Giuliani had been central to Trumpworld’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to find dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, and he also is reportedly under federal criminal investigation related to his campaign to oust Marie Yovanovitch from her role as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and whether it violated foreign lobbying laws.
Giuliani’s relationship with the Kabila administration first became public knowledge in July 2018 when he was spotted in attendance at a swanky cocktail party in Washington, D.C., headlined by the Congolese special envoy to the United States. While the event was presented as a chance for U.S. officials to discuss the “strategic relationship” between the U.S. and African nations, The New York Times reported in December 2018 that it was actually part of Kabila’s aggressive lobbying effort to persuade the Trump administration to drop further sanctions.
Mer hired American lobbyists with ties to the Trump administration, including firms owned by former Senator Bob Dole and by the Trump campaign’s onetime liaison to Congress, Adnan Jalil. But two top DRC foreign ministry officials with knowledge of the country’s relationship with Giuliani informed The Daily Beast that the Kabila administration began to speak with the former New York City mayor after it became dissatisfied with the work done by the other lobbyists in getting the Trump administration to take a position on the DRC’s political situation, and after spending months attempting to persuade Washington against punishing Kabila as he sought to extend his stay in office despite reaching his term limit.
“Kabila was desperate to reach out to the Trump administration regarding his political future and so he wanted someone very close [to the U.S. president] to work as a liaison,” one of the officials, who worked as a diplomat in the Congolese foreign ministry during the period of negotiations with American lobbyists, told The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity. “What he wanted was for the U.S. government not to impose sanctions on him should he decide to continue to serve as president.”
The DRC is one of Africa's poorest and most politically unstable nations, despite boasting vast natural resources. In the heavily populated eastern part of the country, over a hundred militia groups are involved in conflicts that have forced around 4.5 million people out of their homes. The area is also battling with a deadly Ebola outbreak—the second worst in history—that has so far claimed more than 700 lives.
Kabila, who became DRC president in 2001 following the assassination of his father and predecessor, had been under huge pressure from the West to relinquish power following accusations of corruption, human rights abuses, and extrajudicial killings during his nearly 18 years as president. The Trump administration had hinted that his close allies might be subjected to new sanctions if he continued in office beyond his constitutional term, which he already had overstayed by two years. His engagement of American lobbyists through Mer was a bid to avoid sanctions from Washington.
Just a few weeks after the D.C. cocktail event that Giuliani attended, Kabila announced he was stepping down in January 2019 after a December 2018 vote to elect a successor. His decision to give up on pursuing a third term, The Daily Beast learned, was part of the understanding he reached with Trump administration officials, allegedly with the help of Giuliani.
“It was agreed that if Kabila announced that he was stepping down, the U.S. will not go ahead with sanctions and will have no issues with whoever he backs to succeed him,” said the diplomat who worked closely with officials at the DRC embassy in Washington. “We believe that Rudy Giuliani helped make the deal happen.”
Not only did the Trump administration not go ahead with its plan to place additional sanctions on the DRC, but it also backed the controversial election of Kabila's secretly anointed successor, Felix Tshisekedi.
Tshisekedi, an opposition candidate who was not favored by pundits or polls to emerge as president, is believed by many in the DRC to have cut a corrupt deal with Kabila to become his successor. He was elected in December 2018 through a process that was described by regional election observers and the international community as widely fraudulent but was praised by the Trump administration.
Foreign Policy reported early last year that when the results of the presidential election were announced in favor of Tshisekedi, officials from government agencies across Washington worked together and agreed to condemn the process as rigged and vowed to hold those involved responsible. But the statement that emerged from the U.S. State Department on Jan. 23 surprisingly did not condemn the election as “deeply flawed and troubling,” as stated in the original draft, but instead endorsed the results and offered praise for the polls—despite leaked documents made available to the media indicating that Tshisekedi’s main rival, Martin Fayulu, won by a wide margin.
Tshisekedi had hired Avenue Strategies, an American firm founded by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and senior campaign adviser Barry Bennett, on Jan. 21, 2019, two days before the controversial State Department statement was released, to “work to advance the strategic relationship of the President-elect and his government with the United States, support visits of the President-elect and his team to the United States and implement a media and public relations plan to improve understanding of the President-elect and his agenda for the people of the DRC” at the cost $90,000 for the period from Jan. 22 through Feb. 28, 2019, based on documents published on the U.S. Department of Justice’s fara.gov website (PDF). The Daily Beast has learned that this arrangement was the brainchild of the then-outgoing Kabila administration, which wanted the incoming president to immediately win the cooperation of the U.S. government.
“Kabila wanted the Trump administration to believe that the incoming president was someone they could easily work with,” said the diplomat. “It was a plan that was conceived long before the elections.”
Months before the presidential votes, senior DRC foreign ministry officials were confident that the outcome of the polls would be backed by the U.S. because they believed Trump’s close associates — Giuliani in particular — would do everything possible to ensure that Kabila faced no uncertainty as he leaves office.
“What we kept being told by colleagues who dealt with the American lobbyists was that Trump’s lawyer would ensure that Kabila was fine,” another top official from the ministry who also did not want to be named, told The Daily Beast. “It was exactly the assurance the government needed because there was fear that if Kabila rigged the elections for his candidate, the Americans would make sure he is embarrassed.”
The manner in which Giuliani, and the lobbyists before him, were allegedly engaged by the Kabila administration was said to not be straightforward. Key officials in the DRC government, including Foreign Minister Léonard She Okitundu, were kept in the dark concerning the deal with Mer as Kabila, who wanted to avoid the risk of sabotage, worked out the details with François Nkuna Balumuene, his U.S. ambassador, and Raymond Tshibanda, his special envoy to Washington at the time.
“Most, if not all, cabinet members became aware of his [Giuliani's] involvement when the media reported it a few weeks before the elections,” said the second foreign ministry official, who worked closely with the then-foreign minister. “Kabila and his close men didn't want to risk another Trump scandal.”
It is not the first time that Giuliani’s lobbying work has created a huge controversy.
The Daily Beast reported last October that despite Giuliani claiming in 2018 he’d never filed a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) document, questions were raised about his lobbying status, with several Democratic senators appealing to the Department of Justice for information on his FARA filings, a legal requirement for any U.S. citizen making contact with the government or media at the request of foreign politicians or officials. Those questions grew when it was reported that his dealings in Ukraine had come under scrutiny in connection with the arrest of two of his associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who are believed to have worked with him in investigating so-called corruption allegations against former Vice President Biden.
The DRC presidential elections may have ended with Kabila and, perhaps, Giuliani having their way, but the spotlight will definitely return to the American as Congolese anti-corruption advocates insist on a probe on the country’s past dealings with Mer.
Based on disclosures filed with the Justice Department, the Congolese government agreed to pay Mer $5.58 million between Dec. 8, 2016 and Dec. 31, 2017 for advisory services and support in lobbying senior U.S. government officials and key policy makers in various Congressional committees. The Tel Aviv-based firm admitted in its filings it will engage the services of subcontractors to work with officials of the African nation. But those calling for an investigation into the deal believe the numbers don’t add up.
“Someone needs to explain how the money rose from $5.5 million to $8 million,” said Bolasie of the Congo Power Initiative. “Everything about the deal seems shady.”
The Daily Beast reached out to Mer for comments on its relationship with Giuliani and for details of its contract with the Kabila administration but it did not get any response from the firm.
Meanwhile, since Kabila’s successor, Tshisekedi, took office last year, relations with the U.S. are strengthening. In August, both countries agreed to pursue military cooperation, with America offering to train Congolese officers in the United States despite the fact that the Central Africa nation’s military have a terrible record of human rights violations. The agreement has also led to speculation about a possible relocation of the headquarters of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) to the DRC. AFRICOM had announced in July that it had kick-started plans of moving its headquarters from the German city of Stuttgart, as it looks to reorganize U.S. military forces in Europe.
Whether or not the Tshisekedi administration, which came to power through Kabila’s support, investigates the payments made to Mer remains to be seen. The Congolese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comments on the petition sent by the civil society groups who are determined to force a probe on the spending.
“We’ll eventually take our protest to the streets if the government fails to carry out an investigation in time,” said Bolasie. “A poor country like the D.R. Congo should not be spending millions of dollars on things that are irrelevant to the vast majority of its citizens.”