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Azerbaijan’s U.S. Lobbying Firm’s List of Impressive Accomplishments

By Harout Sassounian
FLArmenians Commentator

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the four lobbying and PR firms hired by Azerbaijan in the United States. One of these companies is the Tool Shed Group.

This week, I would like to present a sample of the impressive activities organized by the Tool Shed Group on behalf of the Consulate General of Azerbaijan which is getting a great bargain by paying only $9,000 a month for all of these pro-Azeri efforts, almost none of which could have happened without the Tool Shed Group.

Most readers are unaware that American lobbying and PR firms hired by foreign entities are legally required not only to register their clients with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), but also file the detailed list of activities on their behalf.

In order to know what efforts have been made by the Tool Shed Group on behalf of the Consulate of Azerbaijan, I have checked the website of the Justice Department where the Tool Shed Group has listed by date all of their activities for Azerbaijan’s Consulate in Los Angeles.

Tool Shed’s list of activities starts on April 1, 2009, but mysteriously ends on March 31, 2011. This must surely be a violation of the Justice Department’s requirement which has to be brought into the attention of the U.S. government. Nevertheless, the two-year report provides a detailed glimpse which I have summarized below as it is a dozen pages long:

1. Outreach to Universities:

Arranged meetings for Consul General Elman Abdullayev with the following University officials: Jolene Kester, California State University, Northridge, CA; the University of New Mexico; Geoff Cowan and Adam Clayton, USC; Chapman University, Orange, CA; Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA; Larry Greenfield, Vice President of the Claremont Institute, Los Angeles, CA; Jack Lewis, Associate Dean, USC Marshall School of Business, Los Angeles, CA; Gail Lapidus, Stanford University, Stanford, CA; David Lundberg, UCLA NanoSystems Institute; University of California, Irvine; and University of Las Vegas, Nevada; Lectures by the Consul General at UCLA; San Francisco State University; San Jose State University, San Jose, CA; USC; Scripps College, Claremont, CA; University of California, Santa Barbara, CA; California State University, Fullerton, CA; Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ; University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ; and Stanford University, Stanford, CA; spoke at a conference on religious pluralism at USC; and conference call with USC Center for Public Diplomacy to discuss a lecture by the Consul General.

2. U.S. Politicians:

Consul General met with Darrell Steinberg, President Pro Tem, California State Senate, Sacramento, CA; Karen Bass, Speaker, California State Assembly, Sacramento, CA; Annette Porini, Chief of Staff, State Senator Joe Simitian, Sacramento, CA; Felipe Fuentes, Assemblyman, California State Assembly, Sacramento, CA; Councilor Chris Calvert, City of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Speaker Ben Lujan, New Mexico State Legislature, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mayor Bob Foster, Long Beach, CA; Cong. Adam Schiff, Glendale, CA; Congresswoman Diane Watson; Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchins, Santa Ana, CA; Orange County Board of Supervisors; Mike Schneider, President Pro Tem, Nevada State Senate, Las Vegas, Nevada; Mayor Oscar Goodman, City of Las Vegas, Nevada; Asked Cong. Michael McMahon (NY) to join the Azerbaijani Caucus, Los Angeles, CA; Mayor Chuck Reed, City of San Jose, CA; Meeting with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to present a gift from Azerbaijan to the Governor, Los Angeles, CA; Mayor Coss, City of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Cong. Dana Rohrabacher, Huntington Beach, CA; and City Council Member Jan Perry, Los Angeles, CA.

3. Jewish and Israeli Representatives:

Consul General of Azerbaijan met with Consul General Jacob Dayan of Israel, Los Angeles, CA; John Fishel, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, CA; Lecture at Temple Judea, Tarzana, CA; American Jewish Committee, San Francisco, CA; and met with Rabbi Leider and Prof. Reuven Firestone regarding a lecture by the Consul General at Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles, CA.

There are dozens of other meetings that Jason Katz, the owner of Tool Shed Group, had arranged for the Consul General of Azerbaijan. I must admit that for a paltry $9,000 a month Mr. Katz is underpaid for arranging such a wide array of access for Azerbaijan in several US States, something the Consul General of Azerbaijan could have never accomplished on his own.

The Armenian-American community makes up for its lack of lobbying and PR firms by the activism of its organizations and their members. However, a professional lobbying and PR firm can add a lot to the existing successes. Unfortunately, most Armenians do not have a proper appreciation for the work of lobbying and PR firms and therefore do not believe in funding such a valuable and much-needed effort!

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Turkey Spends $2.6 Million to Hire Two New Lobbying and PR Firms

By Harut Sassounian
FLArmenians Guest Contributor

Last week, I wrote about a dozen public relations and lobbying firms the Turkish government had already hired. In recent weeks, the Republic of Turkey added two new such firms: Ballard Partners and Burson-Marsteller.

Turkish officials don’t seem to realize that having more than a dozen lobbying firms not only is a waste of money due to unnecessary duplication—it is also a waste of the valuable time of several Turkish Embassy officials in Washington, D.C. These officials have to spend a lot of their time giving detailed instructions to these firms, reading their reports, commenting on them, meeting with them, forwarding their reports to the Foreign Ministry with lengthy explanations, and taking corrective action based on Ankara’s reaction. Unless such an intense and elaborate effort is made in working with so many lobbying firms, Turkish officials are simply wasting their country’s money!

I am happy that the Turkish government has decided to waste more of its money by agreeing to pay Brian Ballard’s firm, Ballard Partners, $1.5 million from May 15 to May 14, 2018. According to Ballard’s registration with the Justice Department, the firm will provide the Turkish government “with advocacy services relative to U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations.” The lobbying activities include “advising, counseling, and assisting [Turkey] in communications with US Government officials. Maintaining U.S. relations with this important NATO partner.”

Brian Ballard is the longtime lobbyist for President Donald Trump as the representative of the Trump Organization in Tallahassee. He raised $16 million for Trump’s presidential campaign while serving as his state finance chairperson and later as vice chairperson of the President’s inaugural committee.

Ballard issued a statement asserting that he “still speaks to Trump on occasion.” Susie Wiles, who was introduced by Ballard to Trump during the campaign, served as Trump’s Florida campaign manager. She is now working for Ballard Partners.

Ballard also hired former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) to be in charge of the Turkish lobbying account. As co-chair of the Congressional Turkey Caucus, Congressman Wexler actively lobbied and voted against a proposed House Armenian Genocide resolution on Oct. 10, 2007. His new job is his reward for staunchly supporting Turkey in Congress for years!

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Ballard’s first interaction with Trump occurred several years ago when he wrote a letter to Trump after reading his book, ‘Trump: The Art of the Deal,’ and Trump answered. Ballard wrote back stating: “if you ever have any issues in Florida, please don’t hesitate to call.” Trump called him after purchasing Mar-a-Largo in 1985, and paid Ballard at least $460,000 from 2013 to 2015 for lobbying work. Trump personally called Ballard asking for his help when he launched his presidential campaign. Ballard is now organizing a fundraising banquet for Trump on June 28. The cost is $35,000 per person and $100,000 to join the host committee.

Ballard makes no secret of his special connections with President Trump. “I would imagine if Hillary Clinton were elected I wouldn’t be here,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. Ballard said, “He doesn’t discuss how he works or his contacts with the president. He’s been spotted at the White House, however, and Trump maintains phone relationships with allies.”

In addition, the Turkish Embassy in Washington signed a contract with Burson-Marsteller for $1.1 million for the period May 1-Dec. 31. Ironically, from 2012 to 2015, Burson-Marsteller was doing lobbying work for the Alliance for Shared Values, a group tied to exiled Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Erdogan opposes and seeks his extradition from the U.S. to Turkey. The Turkish government reportedly threatened Burson-Marsteller’s operations in Turkey if the firm continued to lobby for Gulen.

Burson-Marsteller is supposed to provide “integrated public relations services to support the [Turkish] Embassy’s communications objectives in the United States. Activities include media outreach, monitoring and analysis; event support; stakeholder engagement; social media counsel; and support for Turkish consulates in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.”

It is noteworthy that despite the millions of dollars spent by Turkey on more than a dozen high-powered lobbying and public relations firms, they could not counter the large number of news articles and wide TV coverage critical of the Turkish government for the attack on peaceful protesters by President Erdogan’s bodyguards in front of the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in D.C., on May 16. This fact reinforces my firm belief that Turkey is wasting millions of dollars annually trying to cleanse its image in the U.S., which is further tarnished by the Turkish government’s brutal policies both at home and abroad.

Justice Department Files Reveal Activities of Firms Lobbying for Turkey

By Harout Sassounian
The California Courier

Sassounian headshotLast week, I described the terms of the $1.4 million contract signed by the Gephardt Group, the lobbying firm of former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, to promote Turkey’s interests in Washington.

Realizing that its relationship with the United States has seriously deteriorated, the Turkish government has been pouring millions of dollars into the coffers of several U.S. firms, hoping to improve its image by whitewashing the dark stains of its dictatorial regime. For that purpose, Ankara on May 12 signed a contract with former Turkish national swimming champion Huma Gruaz and her Chicago-based public relations firm Alpaytac, Inc., for $1,420,000 a year. Oddly enough, instead of making monthly payments, the Turkish government gave Alpaytac $1 million up front upon signing the agreement, and paid the balance of $420,000 in the first three months. Alpaytac thus replaced the public relations firm of Fleishman-Hillard, which had received $779,805 from the Turkish Embassy for the 6-month period from Nov. 1, 2013 to April 30, 2014, at which time its contract was terminated.

In addition, Ankara benefits from the activities of the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), which spent over $1 million to sponsor 170 congressional trips to Turkey since 2000. The TCA was founded in 2007 by Massachusetts microchip millionaire Yalcin Ayasli, who has donated close to $140,000 in the past 18 months to several pro-Turkish members of Congress, according to Al-Monitor.

Most people are unaware that pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, American firms representing foreign clients are required to report to the U.S. Justice Department their day-to-day activities every six months.

Alpaytac’s six-month report is not yet due. However, we would like to present excerpts from the detailed files the Gephardt Group and its subcontractors—Greenberg Traurig LLP, Lydia Borland, Brian Forni, and Dickstein Shapiro LLP—submitted to the Justice Department regarding their specific activities on behalf of Turkey from Aug. 1, 2013 to Jan. 31, 2014:

– On Sept. 19, 2013, forwarded a letter from Turkish Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek to Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Patrick Leahy.

– Sent emails to Reps. Castro, Cohen, Connolly, Deutch, Esty, Foxx, Frankel, Gabbard, Kennedy, Schneider, Wagner, and Whitfield and Sen. Murphy regarding the upcoming visit of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu; contacts were also established with several other members of Congress to discuss Syria, Iran sanctions, Hamas, and missile defense.

– Dick Gephardt reported making campaign contributions from Sept. 24 to Dec. 12, 2013 to: Reps. Alcee Hastings ($1,000), Barbara Lee ($1,000), Marjorie Margolies ($1,000), Richard Neal ($1,250), Brad Schneider ($500), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz ($1,500), Marc Veasey ($1,000), and Henry Waxman ($1,000); and Sens. Dick Durbin ($2,500), Mary Landrieu ($1,000), Claire McCaskill ($1,000), Mark Pryor ($1,500), and Ron Wyden ($2,500).

– Gephardt Group employees contributed to Sens. Dick Durbin ($500) and Jeanne Shaheen ($1,500); and Reps. Steve Cohen ($500), Colleen Hanabusa ($1,250), Jim Moran ($500), Brad Schneider ($500), and Henry Waxman ($500).

– Employees of Gephardt Group subcontractor Dickstein Shapiro LLC contacted Ben Branch, legislative director to Cong. Gregory Meeks, “regarding legislation focused on Turkish regional issues.” On behalf of Dickstein Shapiro, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert met with Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan and Sen. Ron Johnson “regarding U.S.-Turkey relations.”

– Other Dickstein Shapiro employees contacted the offices of Reps. George Holding, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Sheila Jackson Lee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Gregory Meeks, Chellie Pingree, Robert Pittenger, Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce, and Ed Whitfield; and Sens. John Boozman, Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, and Roger Wicker to discuss Turkish regional issues, Cyprus, Travel to Turkey, and U.S.-Turkey relations.

– Dickstein Shapiro employees contributed over $60,000 to the political campaigns of congressional candidates from July 20 to Dec. 19, 2013, including Sens. Lamar Alexander ($2,500), Kay Hagan ($9,000), Amy Klobuchar ($2,000), Mitch McConnell ($2,500), Mark Pryor ($2,500), and Tim Scott ($1,000); and Reps. Sanford Bishop ($2,500), Emanuel Cleaver ($1,500), Rick Crawford ($2,500), Steve Daines ($2,500), John Dingell ($1,000), Bill Huizenga ($2,500), Eddie Bernice Johnson ($1,000), Adam Kinzinger ($2,500), Mike McIntyre ($5,000), Buck McKeon ($1,500), Dutch Ruppersberger ($2,500), and Ed Whitfield ($2,500).

Since the lobbying firms hired by Turkey are obligated by law to report their detailed activities, it is important to regularly check their Justice Department filings to find out who they are contacting in Congress, for what purpose, and how much are they contributing to their political campaigns.

Harout Sassounian is a syndicated columnist, author, political analyst, and human rights activist in Los Angeles, California. He is the editor of The California Courier, a leading Armenian American weekly newspaper.