Vin Weber, Top Romney Adviser, Lobbying for Ukraine Group

Records show the former Minnesota Congressman is a registered lobbyist for a group that seeks to burnish the reputation of Ukraine, a country condemned by international human rights groups. Eli Lake reports.

Gerardo Mora / Getty Images ; Joshua Roberts / Bloomberg via Getty Images

One of Mitt Romney’s top foreign-policy advisers recently took a side job: Burnishing the reputation of the government of Ukraine, a country condemned by international human rights groups and European governments for alleged corruption, unlawful imprisonment of opposition figures and a slide into authoritarianism reminiscent of Putin’s Russia.

According to forms filed in May under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, Vin Weber, a former Minnesota Congressman and special adviser to Romney, is a registered lobbyist for a Brussels-based group known as the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. The group’s mission, according to its website, is to push for a comprehensive trade agreement between the European Union and to strengthen ties with the United States. Its founding president was Leonid Kozhara, a senior member of parliament for Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions.

On the campaign trail and on his website, Romney has criticized Russia, promising that as president he would “be forthright in confronting the Russian government over its authoritarian practices,” and contrasting his more-hawkish stance with President Obama’s “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has at times sought closer ties with Vladimir Putin even as he has courted the West. In 2010, Yanukovych extended the lease for the Russian Navy’s use of a Black Sea port in Sevastopol. This week, he will meet with Putin in Yalta for a major summit.

Neither Weber nor officials from the Romney campaign returned repeated calls seeking comment. Lucy-Claire Saunders, a spokeswoman with Mercury/Clark & Weinstock, the lobbying firm where Weber is a partner and which is also listed as a lobbyist for the ECFMU, said “the Party of Regions does not provide any direct or indirect financial support for the Centre; however they do share the philosophy that it is in Ukraine’s long-term interests to further integrate and align with the West.”

Saunders said the Centre is funded by a group of Ukrainian business people, but declined to provide their names, saying that the organization is “in compliance with all European and Belgian disclosure laws” and “will report its activities by the end of 2012, as this is the first year of activity.” She said that in May, Kozhara, the group’s president, “transitioned to a largely advisory role.”

According to Romney’s website, Weber is one of 24 “special advisers” to the campaign. He also, according to campaign officials, participates in a weekly conference call with four other senior advisers and Alex Wong, the campaign’s foreign and legal policy adviser.

Advisers to presidential campaigns are generally hired for their expertise on important topics. They can be called upon to tutor candidates on issues, prep them for debates and help them respond to fast-breaking news. If all goes well, they might score a coveted Cabinet position. Because advisers are often unpaid, it’s not unusual for them to have other jobs, including as lobbyists. In 2008, the Obama and McCain campaigns both had advisers who were lobbyists for foreign companies or governments.

What’s notable about Weber’s lobbying is that it has the potential to benefit a government that critics say is backsliding from a democratic revolution. Yanukovych has come under fire for the prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader and former prime minister who is now serving a seven-year prison sentence. Because of this, as well as prosecutions of other senior officials in the previous government and concerns about Yanukovych’s consolidation of power, the European Union in December opted not to conclude a trade agreement with Ukraine. Senior politicians from Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom boycotted the European soccer championship matches played in Ukraine’s capital Kiev this summer, citing the arrest of opposition leaders.

A special report on Ukraine issued last year by the Washington-based human-rights group, Freedom House, said, “Ukraine under President Yanukovych has become less democratic and, if current trends are left unchecked, may head down a path toward autocracy and kleptocracy.” A follow up (PDF) to that report released on July 5 found that “a year later, most of those key concerns remain, and in some cases the problems have grown considerably worse, especially in the area of selective prosecution of opposition figures and corruption.”

Weber was an early endorser of fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty in the 2012 GOP presidential primaries. In August, after Pawlenty pulled out of the race, Weber announced his support for Romney and has since been a key surrogate for the campaign in the media as well as a senior adviser. It’s unclear whether the Romney campaign was informed of his registration in May as a lobbyist for the ECFMU.

In Washington, Weber has cultivated a reputation as an effective lobbyist. In 2007, Washingtonian Magazine listed him number 5 on its list of the most powerful lobbyists in D.C. The magazine credited him with building a $9 million Washington lobbying practice for the New York law firm, Clark & Weinstock. In October, that practice merged with Mercury Communications and became known as Mercury/Clark & Weinstock. Jim Talent, a former Missouri senator and another key Romney adviser, is a co-chairman. Talent didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Weber is also past chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization that makes grants to democratic non-governmental organizations throughout Ukraine. In 2010, he was awarded the endowment’s Democracy Service Medal. At the award ceremony, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised Weber as her “best Republican friend.” She said Weber understood “you can never impose democracy, that is an oxymoron, what you have to be able to do is show its value and promote it, and that is definitely what Vin’s life has been dedicated to.”

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The National Endowment for Democracy declined to comment about Weber’s contract with the ECFMU.

The ECFMU was formed in January in part to work with the U.S. and the European Union to normalize relations between Ukraine and the West. One of the ECFMU’s centerpiece projects is known as the “U.S. Allies Project.” According to the website, that project “seeks to inform the American government, opinion leaders, political decision makers and civil society, focusing on reforms being undertaken by Ukraine as part of its commitment to becoming a fully Western-facing democracy.”

David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, says “the Centre is not addressing the core problems that exist in Ukraine.” To improve relations with the U.S., he says, Ukraine “needs to end the selective prosecution and imprisonment of opposition figures, deal in a serious way with the problem of corruption and family-ization, the enrichment of people in Yanukovych’s family, and ensure the October parliamentary election pass the free and fair test. Absent progress in those three areas, the future of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship is not that bright.”