The lobbying group co-founded by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman is in the crosshairs of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, being mentioned indirectly Monday in the 12-count indictment of President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager.
The Podesta Group has been identified in news reports as “Company B,” one of two firms that has lobbied for pro-Russian Ukrainian government officials, in the indictment of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager, and Manafort associate Rick Gates.
The Podesta Group was founded in 1988 by John Podesta, Clinton’s former campaign chairman, who hasn’t been part of the company’s operations since leaving in 1993 to work for President Bill Clinton’s White House, and eventually became chief of staff. His brother, Tony Podesta, stepped down Monday as chairman because the company has reportedly been losing clients as a result of the Mueller probe.
“Company A” was identified as Mercury Public Affairs, a Republican-leaning firm that includes former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota and former Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana as partners. Neither the Podesta Group, nor Mercury Public Affairs was accused of any illegality.
“There is much more to come in this investigation, and the conventional wisdom seems to be shifting that this will only target the right side of the aisle,” Ron Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI, told The Daily Signal.
“Bob Mueller knows what’s expected of him, and I don’t see him doing anything differently, based on Republicans or Democrats. … If the Podesta Group simultaneously worked with the campaign, or there was a relationship with the brothers that is relevant to the investigation, it may tie the two together,” he said.
The indictment says:
In furtherance of the scheme, from 2006 until 2014, both dates being approximate and inclusive, [Manafort] and [Gates] engaged in a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign in the United States at the direction of [Ukraine’s Party of Regions leader Viktor] Yanukovych, the Party of Regions, and the Government of Ukraine.
Manafort and Gates did so without registering and providing the disclosures required by law.
As part of the scheme, in February 2012, Manafort and Gates solicited two Washington, D.C., firms (Company A and Company B) to lobby in the United States on behalf of Yanukovych, the Party of Regions, and the Government of Ukraine. For instance, [Gates] wrote to Company A that it would be ‘representing the Government of Ukraine in [Washington, D.C.]’
The Podesta Group has several major clients, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. In 2017, Wells Fargo paid the group $450,000; SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment paid $330,000 for representation; the pharmaceutical firm Mylan Inc. paid $560,000; and Lockheed Martin paid $420,000, according to the center.
The Podesta Group made $15.7 million in lobbying income during 2017. During 2016, it earned $24 million.
The Podesta Group did not respond to phone and email inquiries from The Daily Signal soliciting comment for this article.
The Podesta Group touts itself for having international reach.
“From advising on parliamentary elections overseas to orchestrating large, issue-focused national advocacy campaigns back home, we know how to chart a winning course,” the Podesta Group website says. “With the rolled-sleeves values and senior-level attention of a boutique shop and the 535-member reach and wide-ranging issue fluency of a powerhouse firm, our bench of strategists brings decades of experience to bear.”
Tony Podesta, through his lawyers, threatened legal action against Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, Carlson said Monday, after first reporting last week on a connection between Manafort and the Podesta Group.
It’s too early to know whether other firms that lobbied for the Ukrainian government violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires disclosure with the Justice Department, Hosko said.
“If other agents and lobbyists for a foreign government didn’t disclose, that alone would be problematic and against the law,” he said. “It is rarely enforced, but it is a predicate to dig deeper.”
Proving a violation of the foreign agent law could be tricky, which is why the law has been so rarely enforced, said Ken Boehm, a former Pennsylvania state prosecutor and chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a nonprofit government watchdog group.
“You have to disclose who you’re registered for, but the question comes up: What is lobbying?” Boehm told The Daily Signal. “The actual definition is narrow. You can do public relations or write opinion pieces all day long. It’s not lobbying unless you meet with lawmakers or officials for the purpose of influence.”
Boehm further doubts anyone with the Podesta Group will face indictment.
“One, I don’t think that Bob Mueller is investigating Podesta as deeply as he’s investigating Manafort. We haven’t seen a raid,” Boehm said. “And two, it’s not against the law to represent sleazeballs. In Washington, it’s a growth industry. Sometimes foreign sleazeballs have more money, because they’re leaders of countries.”
The indictment further describes some of the activities of “Company A” and “Company B”:
Toward the end of that first year, in November 2012, GATES wrote to Company A and Company B that the firms needed to prepare an assessment of their past and prospective lobbying efforts so the ‘President’ could be briefed by ‘Paul’ on ‘what Ukraine has done well and what it can do better as we move into 2013.’ … At the direction of [Manafort] and [Gates], Company A and Company B engaged in extensive lobbying.
Among other things, they lobbied multiple members of Congress and their staffs about Ukraine sanctions, the validity of Ukraine elections, and the propriety of Yanukovych’s imprisoning his presidential rival, Yulia Tymoshenko (who had served as Ukraine president prior to Yanukovych).
The Podesta Group did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Signal.