Justice Department accuses two political activists of concealing foreign lobbying

Justice Department accuses two political activists of concealing foreign lobbying during Trump administration – The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two well-connected political consultants provided false information about lobbying on behalf of a wealthy Gulf state during the Trump administration, according to Justice Department court documents unsealed Tuesday.

Charging documents filed in federal court in Washington allege that Barry P. Bennett, an adviser to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, led a covert and lucrative lobbying campaign designed to advance the interests of a foreign country, including by denigrating a foreign country rival nation.

The country for which the work was done is not named in the documents, but it matches the description of Qatar, which paid Bennett's company $2.1 million for lobbying in 2017, and in a Justice Department subpoena 2020, which The Associated Press previously obtained The Press sought documents related to Bennett's foreign lobbying work.

Federal prosecutors filed two criminal charges against Bennett in a charging document called an “information,” which is typically filed only with the defendant's consent and generally signals that the parties have reached an agreement. Prosecutors said the case would be dismissed once he complied with the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement, including paying a $100,000 fine.

The Justice Department also reached a similar agreement with Douglas Watts, a New Jersey political consultant who prosecutors say worked with Bennett and did not register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The Nazi Propaganda Exposure Act in the United States, enacted in 1938, requires individuals to disclose to the Justice Department if they engage in advocacy, lobbying, or public relations activities in the United States for a foreign government or political entity.

An attorney for Bennett did not immediately respond to messages sent to his law firm. Justin Dillon, an attorney for Watts, declined to comment Tuesday evening. An email to the Qatari embassy was not immediately returned.

According to the Justice Department, in 2017, Bennett signed a contract for his company, Avenue Strategies, to lobby on behalf of the Qatari embassy. That year he also registered with the Justice Department to advocate for the embassy.

But as part of that strategy, prosecutors say, he also secretly operated another company called Yemen Crisis Watch, which ran a public relations campaign to denigrate one of Qatar's unnamed rivals – both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates Emirates have been involved in military operations in Yemen that have been criticized, say, for contributing to a humanitarian crisis – and improving Qatar's standing with the US government.

According to prosecutors, these efforts included lobbying Congress and Trump, as well as a social media campaign, publishing opinion articles in newspapers and producing a television documentary. Yemen Crisis Watch called on the public to contact their lawmakers and ask them to stop supporting Qatar's unnamed rival's intervention in Yemen, prosecutors said.

According to previous reports from the Wall Street Journal and the Topeka Capital-Journal, Robert Schuller, a prominent televangelist, and former Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer both supported Yemen Crisis Watch's efforts. Neither man was accused of wrongdoing and messages sent to them were not immediately returned.

Prosecutors say Bennett's consulting firm failed to disclose the formation of Yemen Crisis Watch in its FARA filings and that Watts made false statements about his knowledge of the company's formation and activities in interviews with the FBI.

The case is among several federal law enforcement investigations related to Qatar's aggressive influence campaign during the Trump administration, when the country was the target of a blockade by Saudi Arabia and other neighbors.


Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia.