The lobbyists hired by Paul Manafort launched a lobbying blitz barely a week after the Senate began weighing a resolution to publicly condemn the man who was effectively their client, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, for throwing a political opponent in jail.
A lobbyist for one prominent Washington firm, the Podesta Group, emailed the staff of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) shortly after he introduced a resolution condemning Yanukovych in May 2012, and a lobbyist for another firm, Mercury, met with one of his aides the next month. They fought for months to kill the resolution — or at least delay it until Ukraine held parliamentary elections that fall.
The lobbying barrage failed. In September 2012, a month before the elections, the Senate passed a measure saying the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko “threatens to jeopardize ties between the United States and Ukraine” and urging Yanukovych to release her.
The battle over the resolution was part of a two-year lobbying effort orchestrated by Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, designed to burnish Yanukovych’s image in Washington and bolster Ukraine’s ties to the European Union. The effort met with limited success. But Manafort’s failure to disclose his role has helped special counsel Robert Mueller build a formidable case against him and has provided a case study of the potential landmines facing lobbyists looking to grab a piece of the lucrative business of helping foreign entities sway Washington decision-making.
Manafort is now facing trial after Mueller charged him with failing to register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, among other allegations. Gates pleaded guilty to lying to investigators to avoid trial and is cooperating with Mueller. The Podesta Group collapsed late last year after Manafort’s indictment, leaving Mercury the only participant to emerge from the effort relatively unscathed.
Court documents, Justice Department filings and interviews with 30 people who were lobbied during the campaign give the fullest picture yet of the lobbying effort that wrought so much chaos. Lobbyists engaged in the effort met with monitors planning to observe the 2012 elections, brought Ukrainian and other European officials to Washington, and called, emailed and met with dozens of members of Congress, congressional staffers, Obama administration officials and others.
Their efforts don’t appear to have been especially successful; an effort to establish an economic agreement between Ukraine and the EU eventually fell apart. And the lobbying campaign came to an end after Ukrainian security forces beat protesters in late 2013, spurring the Senate to pass another resolution condemning that government’s actions. Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia months later.
“I think it had very little success,” John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who directs the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, said of the lobbying campaign.
“We weren’t actually that successful,” said one person with direct knowledge of the Podesta Group’s lobbying effort, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation.
Mercury and the Podesta Group have said they didn’t know they were working for Yanukovych at the time. They were hired for the lobbying work by a nonprofit called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, which Mueller has charged was “under the ultimate direction” of Yanukovych, his party and Ukraine’s government. Neither firm notified the Justice Department it would be acting as a foreign agent, as is required by law when working for clients controlled by a foreign government or political party.
Both Mercury and the Podesta Group say they were deceived by their clients, and Gates last month acknowledged lying to a law firm so Mercury wouldn’t have to register with the Justice Department. The firms retroactively registered last year and filed documents detailing their meetings during the Ukraine campaign.
But there are indications some Mercury and Podesta Group lobbyists understood who they were representing. Gates wrote in an email to Mercury — identified as “Company A” in court filings — that it would be “representing the Government of Ukraine in [Washington,] DC.”
One former State Department official who met with Podesta Group lobbyists in 2012 said they “mentioned they were working for a think tank that was funded by the government of Ukraine.”
Mike McKeon, a Mercury partner, said the firm hired an experienced lawyer at the outset of the work to decide whether to register as a foreign agent and followed his advice.
“Throughout the engagement, as new issues or concerns arose, we went back to our attorney to ensure we were disclosing our work properly,” McKeon said in a statement.
A Podesta Group spokeswoman said the firm disclosed its work “based on the information the firm had at the time” and relied on the advice of expert and in-house counsel.
The actual lobbying effort appears to have been wide-ranging and somewhat scattershot. Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who once advised the Ukrainian government, said the lobbyists had a tough assignment. “They managed to keep Yanukoyvch acceptable both in Brussels and in Washington,” Åslund said — at least until he was forced from power.
Some people who met with Mercury and Podesta Group lobbyists said they had no memory of the meetings. Others said it wasn’t clear what the lobbyists wanted.
“There was no ask,” said one former Senate staffer who met with former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a top Mercury lobbyist, and wondered why he’d requested the meeting.
The lobbying campaign began in the runup to the Ukrainian election in 2012.
“We were told our assignment was to make the case that it was better for the west if Ukraine was welcomed into the European Union,” McKeon said. “We made the case to opinion leaders in the United States, whether in the media, think tanks, elected officials or their staff.”
Mercury and Podesta Group lobbyists reached out to several election monitors with the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based group that says it promotes democracy. Lobbyists even emailed Mindaugas Jurkynas, a Lithuanian university professor who was serving as an election monitor, according to Justice Department disclosures. (Jurkynas told POLITICO he didn’t remember receiving such an email.)
The disclosures also show that Ken Wollack, the president of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit that had withdrawn from a Ukrainian government election-reform group, met with Podesta Group lobbyists in 2012 and later spoke with Weber.
Wollack also said he met with Manafort, which wasn’t disclosed in any filings. Manafort “reached out, wanting to know what could be done in order for NDI to return to the working group,” Wollack said. NDI didn’t rejoin the group.
A Mercury lobbyist held a conference call two days before the parliamentary elections with a Ukrainian official, Mikhail Okhendovsky, several congressional staffers and “members of the media,” according to a Justice Department disclosure. Mercury reached out to more than two dozen news outlets in 2012, disclosures show, including a little-known website called Family Security Matters.
Warner Todd Huston, a writer for Family Security Matters, wrote an article decrying the Senate resolution’s calling for Tymoshenko’s release weeks after its passage.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. senate [sic] recently passed a resolution threatening sanctions against Ukraine for the arrest proving that the Senate has fallen for the overly simplistic narrative that Tymoshenko was arrested on ‘politicized’ charges,” Huston wrote.
Huston didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The work continued for more than a year after the Ukrainian election. Mercury lobbyists helped set up meetings in 2013 for Sergiy Klyuyev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and a Yanukovych ally, who met a handful of lawmakers in Washington and later traveled to Pittsburgh with a delegation of nearly a dozen Ukrainians to discuss shale development.
“Mr. Klyuyev is an expert on energy and is interested in a conversation with you about natural gas,” the scheduler for Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) wrote to the congressman, according to notes provided by Shimkus’ office, adding that Ukraine had just signed a shale gas exploration deal with Royal Dutch Shell. (The company later pulled out of the deal after the outbreak of armed conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces.)
McKeon said the meetings “were intended to encourage western investment in Ukraine’s energy industry,” which the group hoped would help Ukraine get into the EU.
Manafort also paid “a group of former senior European politicians” to lobby in the U.S., according to Mueller. Disclosures show that Mercury lobbyists accompanied Romano Prodi, a former Italian prime minister, and Alfred Gusenbauer, a former Austrian chancellor, to meetings with members of Congress and congressional staffers in 2013. Prodi acknowledged in an interview with The New York Timesthat Gusenbauer had paid him but said he had “never been paid from any lobby group in America.”
And Mercury and Podesta Group lobbyists continued to battle proposed congressional resolutions calling on Ukraine to free Tymoshenko, according to disclosure filings.
Some of the resolutions, including ones introduced by Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) went nowhere. But on Nov. 18, 2013, a few days before the beginning of the protests that would sweep Yanukovych from power, the Senate passed a resolution introduced by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) calling for Tymoshenko’s release.
“Our office heard from the Podesta Group on this issue during that time,” said Ben Marter, a Durbin spokesman. “They were sharing a differing view and made some inquiries about the timing of the resolution, which ultimately passed.”