Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering’s involvement with the Boeing Co. during the years he spent pushing for the historic nuclear deal with Iran is raising questions about whether the veteran diplomat violated federal lobbying law by failing to disclose his ties to the aerospace giant.
The Daily Beast last week reported that Boeing kept Pickering’s employment quiet, despite the fact that the corporation had a financial stake in the Obama administration’s completion of the Iran nuclear deal.
Details of Pickering’s relationship with Boeing—outside his employment and later work as a “consultant”—are murky, but lawyers and government watchdog groups say both parties should have disclosed it.
“Lobbying is a protected First Amendment right. It’s not evil. It’s not unsavory. It’s a protected First Amendment right,” Cleta Mitchell, a partner with the Washington-based law firm Foley & Lardner, told The Daily Signal:
Congress made a policy determination many decades ago that that information is going to be disclosed so people can weigh what financial interests there are. Imagine if people knew [about Pickering’s ties to Boeing] at the time of the debate. It’s a factor to weigh. Boeing should have nothing to hide, but they apparently hid it. They all hid it, and that’s a violation of federal law, and it’s punishable, and they should be punished.
The Daily Beast reported that Pickering, 84, whose lengthy diplomatic career includes serving as U.S. ambassador to Israel and the United Nations, had been on the aerospace giant’s payroll as a consultant during the time he lobbied for the Iran nuclear deal.
Neither Pickering nor Boeing mentioned their ties when Pickering was supporting the historic agreement in op-eds published by major news organizations, in testimony on Capitol Hill, and in letters penned to congressional leadership.
The former diplomat didn’t respond to The Daily Beast’s question of whether he disclosed his ties to Boeing during discussions about the nuclear deal with Iran.
Boeing, meanwhile, did have a financial interest in the Iran deal’s completion: Last week, the aircraft manufacturer confirmed it signed a $25 billion deal to sell more than 100 airliners to Iran Air, the state-owned airline.
Boeing’s aircraft deal with Iran Air is the first such agreement since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran opened the door to finalize the sale, since the pact lifted sanctions on the hard-line Islamic regime.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said there has been much discussion about the ways people skirt federal lobbying law. But, she said, the stakes of the U.S. deal with Iran—designed to ensure that the regime does not obtain a nuclear weapon in the near future—were “too high” for there not to have been transparency.
“It’s a case where there was a lot of controversy, a lot of national conversation. This is an issue of national importance, and we absolutely need to have all the facts … so we can carefully and thoughtfully consider the right path for the nation,” Krumholz said, adding:
When we have meaningful information that is being kept out of the public view, it begs the question of whether there was an intent to mislead or whether those omissions were an oversight or intentional.
Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, a person must register as a lobbyist if the person satisfies three criteria: He or she is paid more than $3,000 by a client in a calendar quarter; spends at least 20 percent of his or her time on behalf of a client in that quarter on direct or indirect lobbying; and he or she has made more than one lobbying contact on behalf of the client.
Mitchell said that based on publicly available information, Pickering should have registered as a lobbyist during the time he was working as a consultant for Boeing and pushing for the Iran nuclear deal.
“The fact of the matter is, in all likelihood he should have registered,” Mitchell said. “His firm should have registered, and he should have been listed as a lobbyist for Boeing and for this matter.”
Pickering was an active figure during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, as The Daily Beast reported.
He testified before the House Armed Services Committee in 2014 on negotiations with Iran, but did not mention his work with Boeing in a disclosure form submitted to the panel. Pickering also spent time with at least one member of Congress discussing the nuclear deal.
In a press release announcing his decision to support the nuclear pact, Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii, said he spent “hours” with Pickering discussing the deal.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also mentioned Pickering during a July speech on the Senate floor.
“Even if not legally required, I would say it is advisable in most circumstances for lobbyists and other consultants to state who their client is, unless an ethics rule or a [nondisclosure agreement] prohibits it,” a Washington-based lawyer with expertise in lobbying and campaign finance law told The Daily Signal in an email.
“If someone is an expert on a given public policy topic, it is advisable for them to disclose when they are speaking for themselves, and when they are speaking on behalf of a client,” the lawyer said.
Krumholz, of the Center for Responsive Politics, said recent years have seen an exodus of lobbyists from the registration rolls. She said the decline could be attributed to a combination of the economic downturn, 2007 legislation bolstering disclosure requirements, and the Jack Abramoff scandal.
Still, Krumholz noted that compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act largely is based on the “honor system.”
“Unfortunately, this is a case where we’re relying on the practitioners to uphold best practices and standards,” she said.
Mitchell, meanwhile, said the law is supposed to provide the public and policymakers in Washington with vital information—such as whether Pickering’s involvement with Boeing could have shaped his opinion on the Iran deal.
“It’s a disclosure law for the purpose of letting the public and the recipients of the information, which is Congress and the executive branch of the federal government, know that when somebody comes in to pitch something to you, you can know, all right, what is the financial interest here?” Mitchell said, adding:
I’m surprised a company like Boeing would do something like this. It’s part of what makes Americans so angry. They see these giant corporations and these big important people who think those laws are for the little people, that they’re bigger than the law.