9/11 families seek Justice Department probe of Saudi lobbying that enlisted U.S. veterans

·Chief Investigative Correspondent
A firefighter touches the names of firefighters carved into the south pool during 15th anniversary ceremony of the attacks on the World Trade Center at the Sept. 11 memorial in New York City. (Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP)
A firefighter touches the names of firefighters carved into the south pool during 15th anniversary ceremony of the attacks on the World Trade Center at the Sept. 11 memorial in New York City. (Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP)

A group of families of Sept. 11 victims is asking the Justice Department to investigate an “unprecedented foreign influence campaign” by Saudi Arabia — including “all-expenses paid” trips to Washington, D.C., with stays at the new Trump International Hotel for veterans willing to lobby to weaken a new law permitting the Saudi government to be sued for complicity in the 2001 terror attacks.

Lawyers for the families charge that Saudi operatives “duped” hundreds of veterans into lobbying on the issue – warning them that under the new law they could be subjected to retaliatory lawsuits in foreign countries — without disclosing the effort was being bankrolled by the Saudi government.

“In service of this dangerous effort to influence Congress into passing legislative text promoted by a foreign power, the Kingdom and its foreign agents have targeted U.S. veterans nationwide” and “deceived them into serving as unwitting advocates for the Saudi government,” according to a letter sent Wednesday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions by lawyers for the “9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism,” a group that represents thousands of 9/11 family victims.

The letter, a copy of which was provided to Yahoo News, opens up a new front in the battle over JASTA, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act — a controversial, recently enacted law that gives the 9/11 families new powers to press lawsuits against the Saudi government in U.S. courts.

The families contend that the Saudis’ “unparalleled” campaign to weaken the measure — including hiring an army of 100 lobbyists and spending at least $1.3 million a month — violated the statute known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires full disclosure of foreign sponsored lobbying activities.

But in making their case in the letter, the families also include as exhibits internal Saudi lobbying memos and emails that could reopen a thorny legal issue for the Trump Organization and the White House: whether a foreign government and its U.S. agents are steering business to the Trump Hotel, still owned by President Trump, in what critics charge is a violation of the “emoluments” clause of the U.S. Constitution. The clause bars government officials from receiving payments or gifts “of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

“The Trump International Hotel lobby and restaurant area has become a very known place for politicos and others to gather,” Jason Johns, a registered lobbyist for Saudi Arabia who lives in Wisconsin, wrote in a memo to a group of veterans who were flown to Washington and booked rooms at the hotel for a three-day trip starting on Jan. 23, three days after President Trump’s inauguration.

Fara Complaint 20170329

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The memo notes that “during previous fly-ins we have run into Senators, Congressman, Agency Officials, Ambassadors and lobbyists, members of the press, etc. … Of course, utilize the opportunity to speak with these individuals regarding” the law the veterans were told to oppose, which would allow the Saudis to be sued. Johns, who serves as deputy national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a veterans group, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night. He had previously referred questions about his role to other veterans who helped organize the trip.

“This is a very unsavory combination of foreign government cash in a Trump business along with foreign influence buying,” said Norm Eisen, a former White House ethics advisor under President Obama, who in January helped file a lawsuit against the president over foreign payments to the Trump Organization, which owns the Trump Hotel.

If it is proven that Saudi government funds were being used to pay for stays at the Trump Hotel, “that is a facial violation of the emoluments clause,” Eisen added.

Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)
Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Hope Hicks, a White House spokeswoman, referred all questions about the Saudi sponsorship of the Trump Hotel stays to the Trump Organization. Sheri Dillon, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, who in January pledged that all “profits” received by the business from foreign governments would be remitted to the U.S. Treasury, did not respond to a request for comment.

But Michael Petruzzello, managing director for Qorvis MSLGroup, the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that has long represented the Saudi government and arranged and paid for the veterans’ trips to the Trump Hotel, dismissed the idea that there was anything improper about the arrangements.

Petruzzello acknowledged that “hundreds” of veterans had gone on the trips and that they were booked rooms at a discounted rate of about $300 a night. “They were staying [at the Trump Hotel] because that’s where they were getting a good rate,” he said. “The insinuation that this was going to influence the administration, by staying at the hotel, that’s just silly.”

As for the letter’s allegations that the lobbying effort may have violated the provisions of FARA, Petruzzello said: “We take compliance with FARA very seriously and we report everything accurately.” The allegation by the lawyers for the 9/11 families that the veterans had been deceived “rings hollow to me,” he added.

“I find it hard to believe anyone would feel they didn’t know why they were in Washington,” he said. “No one has come to me or come to us” and complained about the trips, he said.

The existence of the Saudi lobbying campaign — including the bookings for veterans at the Trump Hotel — was initially reported in January by Daily Caller and Politico. But the extent of the effort appears to have been much larger than previously known. By tracking Facebook and other social media postings by the participants, Brian McGlinchey, who writes a blog called 28pages.org, has identified seven separate visits by groups of between 20 and 50 veterans who booked rooms at the Trump Hotel, starting on Nov. 14, the week after the election. Two of those visits, one from Jan. 23 to 26 and another in mid-February, occurred after Trump became president.

About 300 veterans are estimated to have gone on the trips in response to email invitations such as one written by Shelbi Lewark, a Denver based political consultant and another Saudi lobbyist, last December. “You don’t have to know anything about JASTA,” wrote Lewark to a group of veterans she was trying to recruit for the effort. “It is all expenses paid (flight, dinner, hotel, transportation). They will be putting you in the Trump hotel, which is incredibly nice. … It’s an awesome trip and basically like a 5 star vacation.” Asked about the email Tuesday night, Lewark acknowledged the wording was “a little foolish” but said that the reference to the free rooms at the Trump hotel was included because “I didn’t want to make it seem like they were going to be spending the whole time stuck in a room in a Motel 6.”

Email Fr: Shelbi Lewark – Subject: JASTA

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JASTA, the new law that is the target of the lobbying campaign, was overwhelmingly passed by Congress last fall over the veto of President Obama. It permits victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments in U.S. courts if they can show that those governments provided “material support, either directly or indirectly” to terrorist groups. Previously, U.S. terror victims had been allowed to file lawsuits only against foreign countries that are formally labeled by the U.S. government as “state sponsors” of terrorism — a designation that has never been applied to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi role in the 9/11 attacks has long been a matter of conjecture and debate. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who dispatched them, came from a wealthy Saudi family. But the families believe their case gained a new impetus with last year’s release of 28 previously classified pages from a congressional report pointing to possible Saudi funding of several associates of the hijackers, although the precise connection remains murky.

The Obama administration had warned that the law could endanger U.S. relations with the Saudis, who remain a key U.S. ally in the Mideast. The Saudis, for their part, had mounted a fierce lobbying campaign against the bill, at one point even threatening to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. assets if it was enacted, out of concern those holdings might be frozen by the U.S. courts as part of a judgment in a suit growing out of the 9/11 attacks.

After the law was passed, lobbying records show, the Saudis, in an effort spearheaded by Qorvis MSL Group, ramped up their efforts with a new tactic: recruiting veterans to lobby Congress to amend the law and weakening its provisions. The veterans were told they, themselves, could become the subject of retaliatory lawsuits that might be filed in foreign countries, such as in Iraq, where they could be charged with war crimes.

The argument was based in part on letters written by Obama administration officials last fall, such as one by then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warning that JASTA “is likely to increase our country’s vulnerability to lawsuits overseas” that could target U.S. service members over military operations in foreign countries.

“The narrative pretty much went like this — JASTA is a great law. We’re for the the 9/11 families — but the wording makes veterans vulnerable,” said David Casler, a Marine who served during the Iraq War and agreed to go on the Jan. 23 trip, spending two nights at the Trump Hotel.

Casler said Saudi lobbyists who provided talking points for veterans for meetings with members of Congress told them that, because of cyberattacks on the Office of Personnel Management — in which hackers accessed personal information of U.S. service members — foreign governments might “detain even our family members if we were flying through the Mideast.”

But what Casler said he was not told, until he arrived at the Trump Hotel and questioned some of those participating, was that the Saudi government was financing the effort — a discovery that he says made him “livid.”

“I definitely believe we were all used,” Casler said. “We were definitely misled.” The lobbyists who recruited him for the effort were agents “for a foreign government trying to implement their will — which goes against the 9/11 victims and justice. It’s almost like treason.”

Smoke and flames billow from the towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Smoke and flames billow from the towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Family members of those harmed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks are on a fresh quest to hold Saudi Arabia responsible. (Photo: Chao Soi Cheong/AP)

Another veteran who went on the same trip, Tim Cord, said he learned of the Saudi role only when, during an opening night dinner at the Trump Hotel, Johns, the Saudi lobbyist from Wisconsin, told the group at a meeting, “there are a lot of rumors that the Saudis are lobbying to kill this bill. I can assure you that’s not what our group is about.”

The reference to the Saudis raised his suspicions and led him to confront another organizer of the trip about who was paying the bill at the Trump Hotel. “Dude, it’s the Kingdom,” Cord said he was told. He said he was outraged. “You’re telling me the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is paying for us all to be here?” he said he responded. “I was pretty dumbfounded. The last thing I wanted was to be in the pocketbook of Saudi Arabia. If I had been told that, I would never have flown in.”

But other veterans who helped organize the trip insisted there was no deception involved, and that the Saudi role wasn’t as large as Casler has portrayed it.

“At no point have we ever been told what to say,” said Cole Azare, a U.S. Navy veteran and lobbyist from Nevada who also helped organize the trips. “At no point have any of us met with a member of the royal family. We have done our own research.”

But the lawyers for the families say that the Saudi role was hidden in at least some of the lobbying material provided to the veterans to hand out to members of Congress. One such flier, under the letterhead of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the veterans group in which lobbyist Johns is a deputy national commander, warns that JASTA could lead to lawsuits against other U.S. allies such as Israel. But the flier never mentions the Saudi role in helping to circulate it.

In an email to Yahoo News late Monday night, Terry Strada, chair of the 9/11 families group, said her organization “expects a full investigation into what we see as continuous efforts by the Saudis to influence our legislative process, mislead our veterans and deceive our U.S. Congress.”

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