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K Street Files: Tracking Lobbyists for Other Countries

One in every $8 spent lobbying Congress and federal agencies comes from foreign governments. 

If there’s one fact that sticks with readers of “The Foreign Policy Auction,” author Ben Freeman hopes it’s that. 

“The fact that foreign governments spend half of a billion dollars per year trying to influence our government should make you uneasy,” said Freeman, a national security investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, who self-
published his first book, in an interview.

Freeman started probing foreign governments’ activities in Washington, D.C.,  as a political science doctoral student at Texas A&M University. When he came to Washington, he made himself a fixture in the Foreign Agents Registration Act Registration Unit Public Office, a small unit housed within a Justice Department building on the 600 block of E Street Northwest. His analysis of semiannual FARA reports to Congress concluded that foreign governments spent more than $490 million last year on lobbying.

Under FARA, lobbyists representing foreign governments must file twice-yearly reports detailing their interactions with Members of Congress and federal agencies. The reports include the date of every lobbying contact, a description of the issue discussed and press releases, position papers, advertisements or any other informational materials distributed within the U.S. The requirements are much more stringent than those for domestic lobbyists under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and can be hundreds of pages long.

The filings also include contributions made by any lobbyist who has foreign clients, and that is what caught Freeman’s eye.

“The Foreign Policy Auction” documents cases from 2007 to 2009 in which lobbyists met with a Member of Congress and made a campaign contribution to that lawmaker’s campaign on the same day, or within the same reporting period. On Sept. 25, 2008, for example, Ignacio Sanchez, co-chairman of federal law and policy at DLA Piper, met with then-Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) to discuss U.S. relations with the United Arab Emirates. The same day, he made a $500 campaign contribution, according to FARA filings. One of Sanchez’s colleagues, Cristina Antelo, now a principal at the Podesta Group, also met with and made same-day contributions to then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), as well as former Reps. Robert Wexler
(D-Fla.) and Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas).

 It is illegal for foreigners to make campaign contributions, but Freeman argues that this practice creates an opportunity for foreign governments to influence American elections. The reported donations, of course, come from lobbyists’ personal funds.

DLA Piper, which is the subject of an entire chapter in Freeman’s book, did not respond to Roll Call’s – or Freeman’s – request for comment.

He was undaunted last week even before he downed his second bourbon at the famed lobbyist hangout Tosca, just blocks from the firm’s downtown headquarters.

“What I have here is the closest evidence of bribery you’re going to find,” he said. “They can tell me that those two things weren’t related all they want.”

And, for $19.95 on Amazon, you can get in on that.

Heels on the Hill

Jennifer Bell and Michaela Sims today are launching Chamber Hill Strategies, a new lobby shop that will focus on tax and health care policy.

Sims, who spent a decade on the Hill as a senior aide to Nebraska Democratic Sens. Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson, left the Bockorny Group to start the business with Bell, whose résumé includes a stint with then-Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

The duo got to know each other while sharing a client, Sanford Health, which they will represent at the new firm. 

“We spent a lot of time talking about what each other’s goals are,” Sims said. “We both wanted the same things, and growing the business is one of them.”

The firm has set up shop on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the duo picked the name so they won’t have to wrangle over whose names go on the door when they bring on new colleagues. They said they hope the moniker will project an air of hard work and success.

“My heels are ruined walking the halls of Congress,” said Sims, lifting her foot to show a worn sole.

Both lobbyists said they wanted to go into business for themselves because they have an entrepreneurial bug.

“This is a 24-7 operation,” Bell said. “Work-life balance seems to be for other people.”

The new shop’s other clients include Independence Medical, Covenant HealthCare and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

In addition to legislative work, Bell and Sims sell clients a separate subscription service they’ve dubbed PolicyCrush, an early morning email that includes top news, links to federal government announcements and reports from think tanks.

K Street Moves

Prism Public Affairs has added Soren Dayton and Lyndsey Medsker as senior vice presidents and Scott Douglass as an associate. Dayton and Medsker joined from New Media Strategies, while Douglass previously worked at the Hawthorn Group.

Submit K Street Files tips here.

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