Hillary Clinton and Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud prior to a State Department meeting in 2012. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The Saudi government, under increasing criticism over civilian casualties from its airstrikes in Yemen and a harsh crackdown on political dissidents at home, has just hired a powerhouse Washington, D.C., lobbying firm headed by a top Hillary Clinton fundraiser — an arrangement that critics charge raises fresh questions about the influence that foreign government lobbyists could have on her campaign.
The Saudi contract with the Podesta Group, owned by veteran Washington lobbyist and Clinton campaign bundler Tony Podesta, calls for the firm to provide “public relations” and other services on behalf of the royal court of King Salman.
It included an initial “project fee” payment of $200,000 last month and unspecified further sums over the course of the next year, according to documents recently filed with the Justice Department Foreign Agents Registration Act office.
The retention comes at a time when the Saudis are being condemned by United Nations officials over reports that their bombings against Houthi strongholds in Yemen’s civil war have resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of innocent civilians, including children.
Adding to the international pressure, the Saudis are also facing criticism from human rights groups over their continued refusal to allow basic rights to women (e.g., the freedom to drive cars). They are also being criticized for their hard-line domestic suppression of political dissidents, with draconian punishments such as the sentence — by beheading — recently given to a 20-year-old Shiite political protester.
“They are very nervous about an American policy change, and so they are betting on the horse they think will win — Hillary Clinton,” said Ali Al-Ahmad, a Saudi analyst with the Institute for Gulf Affairs, and a frequent critic of the regime, about the hiring of the Podesta Group.
The Podesta Group is now on a roster of a half-dozen D.C. lobbying firms representing the Saudis, including the giant international law firm DLA Piper and the firm Hogan Lovells, whose principal on the Saudi account is former Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who chairs the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC that is a major source of House GOP campaign funds. (Former Texas congressman Tom Loeffler, a top bundler for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, for years represented the Saudis, but his current firm, Akin Gump, now lobbies for the United Arab Emirates, among other foreign clients.)
But the retention of the Podesta Group has gotten attention in Washington lobbying circles because of its unusually close ties to Hillary Clinton’s campaign: Tony Podesta is the brother and former business partner of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. He is also a prolific Democratic Party fundraiser who is among 43 Washington lobbyists (many of whom also represent foreign governments) listed as Clinton campaign bundlers in reports filed by the campaign with the Federal Election Commission.
The reports disclose that Podesta had raised $140,175 for the Clinton campaign through Sept. 30. Two weeks ago, just days after filing its Saudi contract with the Justice Department, Podesta held a Clinton campaign fundraiser at his home that offered fine Italian food cooked by five gourmet chefs, including himself and his brother, the campaign chairman.
The Podesta Group point man on the Saudi account is David Adams, who previously served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in 2011 and 2012, making him Clinton’s chief Capitol Hill lobbyist for her last two years as secretary of state, according to Justice Department filings reviewed by Yahoo News.
But Tony Podesta, while calling himself “a proud Clinton bundler,” vigorously denied that the Saudi contract had anything to do with his efforts to elect her president. “I’ve never had a conversation with Hillary Clinton or anybody in the campaign about the work of the firm,” Podesta said when reached by Yahoo News on his cellphone while he was dining at a restaurant in Sicily. “We represent a dozen foreign governments around the world — we do good work for them. And it has nothing to do with the Hillary Clinton campaign.”
Asked for comment, Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin emailed: “Hillary Clinton has a strong record of standing up for human rights, and has spent her career fighting for women and girls around the world. She’s proven that she cannot be intimidated — let alone influenced — to sacrifice these core principles. And so as president she will continue to stand up to countries like Saudi Arabia that don’t allow women to have equality. … Make no mistake, when it comes to U.S. national security, she is guided only by the best interests of our country.“
The Saudis have longstanding ties to the Clintons: The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is among the largest donors to the Clinton Foundation, contributing between $10 million and $25 million, according to the foundation’s website (which discloses figures only in broad categories, not precise sums). Bill Clinton has also received hefty fees for speeches in Saudi Arabia, including $600,000 for two talks while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Last Sept. 4, Bill Clinton met with King Salman for what was described by one source as a “brief courtesy visit” at the Four Seasons Hotel. Two weeks later, on Sept. 18, the Podesta Group filed papers with the Justice Department reporting that it had been retained by an entity called “the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court.”
Tony Podesta in 2004. (Photo: Jacqueline Larma/AP)
Podesta said he was “unaware” of the Four Seasons hotel meeting between the king and the former president and that his negotiations to represent the Saudis had been going on for several months before that. He declined, however, to talk about precisely what his firm had been retained to do for the Saudis. “We don’t speak on or off the record about what we do for our clients,” he said.
Podesta is far from the only Clinton campaign bundler to be lobbying for foreign governments or their interests. A review of the Clinton campaign’s bundler list by Yahoo News found lobbyists representing the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, South Korea, Morocco, Japan and Hong Kong. (Bush, who among GOP candidates has the most entrenched ties to K Street, received bundled contributions from lobbyists with firms that represent the People’s Republic of China, Turkey and South Korea.)
Two of the Clinton lobbyist-bundlers, Richard Sullivan and David Jones, are principals in a firm that, until late last year, represented the Russia Direct Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund co-founded by Vladimir Putin when he was prime minister. (Neither Sullivan nor Jones worked on the Russia Fund account.) Another Clinton campaign bundler, former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, is the lobbyist for the Paris-based National Council for Resistance in Iran, a controversial Iranian dissident group that for years had been on the State Department’s terrorism list, but was “de-listed” three years ago.
In her campaign, Hillary Clinton has pledged to push for sweeping campaign-finance reform that will “end the stranglehold that wealthy interests have over our political system” and “curb the outsized influence of big money in American politics.” But the role of so many well-heeled foreign lobbyists in Clinton’s campaign fundraising apparatus is “very troubling” and represents a substantial retreat from eight years ago, when then-candidate Barack Obama refused to take campaign money at all from any registered lobbyists, said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a public interest group that has long pushed for wholesale changes in the campaign-finance system.
“This is classic influence peddling,” said Holman.