Hillary moneyman highlights new Saudi connection


LONDON: The Saudi government, under increasing criticism over civilian casualties from its airstrikes in Yemen and a harsh crackdown on political dissidents at home, has just hired a powerhouse Washington, D.C., lobbying firm headed by a top Hillary Clinton fundraiser — an arrangement that critics charge raises fresh questions about the influence that foreign government lobbyists could have on her campaign.

The Saudi contract with the Podesta Group, owned by veteran Washington lobbyist and Clinton campaign bundler Tony Podesta, calls for the firm to provide “public relations” and other services on behalf of the royal court of King Salman.

It included an initial “project fee” payment of $200,000 last month and unspecified further sums over the course of the next year, according to documents recently filed with the Justice Department Foreign Agents Registration Act office.

The retention comes at a time when the Saudis are being condemned by United Nations officials over reports that their bombings against Houthi strongholds in Yemen’s civil war have resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of innocent civilians, including children.

Adding to the international pressure, the Saudis are also facing criticism from human rights groups over their continued refusal to allow basic rights to women (e.g., the freedom to drive cars). They are also being criticized for their hard-line domestic suppression of political dissidents, with draconian punishments such as the sentence — by beheading— recently given to a 20-year-old Shiite political protester.

“They are very nervous about an American policy change, and so they are betting on the horse they think will win — Hillary Clinton,” said Ali Al-Ahmad, a Saudi analyst with the Institute for Gulf Affairs, and a frequent critic of the regime, about the hiring of the Podesta Group.

The Podesta Group is now on a roster of a half-dozen D.C. lobbying firms representing the Saudis, including the giant international law firm DLA Piper and the firm Hogan Lovells, whose principal on the Saudi account is former Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who chairs the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC that is a major source of House GOP campaign funds. (Former Texas congressman Tom Loeffler, a top bundler for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, for years representedthe Saudis, but his current firm, Akin Gump, now lobbies for the United Arab Emirates, among other foreign clients.)

But the retention of the Podesta Group has gotten attention in Washington lobbying circles because of its unusually close ties to Hillary Clinton’s campaign: Tony Podesta is the brother and former business partner of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. He is also a prolific Democratic Party fundraiser who is among 43 Washington lobbyists (many of whom also represent foreign governments) listed as Clinton campaign bundlers in reports filed by the campaign with the Federal Election Commission.

The reports disclose that Podesta had raised $140,175 for the Clinton campaign through Sept. 30. Two weeks ago, just days after filing its Saudi contract with the Justice Department, Podesta held a Clinton campaign fundraiser at his home that offered fine Italian food cooked by five gourmet chefs, including himself and his brother, the campaign chairman.

The Podesta Group point man on the Saudi account is David Adams, who previously served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in 2011 and 2012, making him Clinton’s chief Capitol Hill lobbyist for her last two years as secretary of state, according to Justice Department filings reviewed by Yahoo News.

But Tony Podesta, while calling himself “a proud Clinton bundler,” vigorously denied that the Saudi contract had anything to do with his efforts to elect her president. “I’ve never had a conversation with Hillary Clinton or anybody in the campaign about the work of the firm,” Podesta said when reached by Yahoo News on his cellphone while he was dining at a restaurant in Sicily. “We represent a dozen foreign governments around the world — we do good work for them. And it has nothing to do with the Hillary Clinton campaign.”

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