foreign policy

LX Investigates: Congressmembers-Turned-Foreign Agents

Watchdogs say Americans’ priorities in peril when former members of Congress take foreign paychecks

NBCUniversal, Inc.

When voters in Southern California elected Buck McKeon to represent them in Congress – eleven times between 1992 and 2014 – they probably never thought he would one day use his political career, as well as their campaign cash, to launch a second career as a foreign agent.

Records show in late 2016, McKeon began working for Saudi Arabia, advocating for the kingdom’s controversial priorities, even when they seemingly stood at-odds with his former constituents’ priorities and longstanding U.S. policies.

Since then, McKeon has lobbied dozens of his former congressional colleagues on the Saudis’ behalf, according to federal filings.  He’s tried to kill legislation that sought to withdraw U.S. troops from the Saudi-led war in Yemen; he’s tried to get a bill passed to encourage sanctions on Saudi enemies in the Middle East; and he’s worked to keep U.S. weapons flowing to the country, even as it finds itself embroiled in scandal after scandal.

The hefty price tag for a former member of Congress didn’t appear to be an issue for the Saudis - especially given their potential return on investment.  McKeon reported pulling in $50,000 a month for his work at first, including a $450,000 check from the kingdom just three days after what the CIA believes to be the Saudi-sponsored murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal KhashoggiRecent federal filings indicate McKeon got a 2019 raise, from $600,000 per year to more than $800,000. 

While mercenarism by former members of Congress may raise red flags in the communities that once elected them, the practice rarely raises eyebrows in Washington.  That’s because it’s become common to see former lawmakers jump at the chance to sign lucrative lobbying deals for foreign nations, even in an era of growing tensions overseas, and exploding debt at home.

A nine-month NBCLX investigation, which included the review of thousands of Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings, revealed more than 50 former members of the House and Senate who have worked for foreign interests in just the last five years.

That includes more than a dozen who leveraged their elected positions into jobs lobbying for controversial countries, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China. Some of the former congressmembers even advocated positions that seemed to contradict public stances they took while representing the American public.

Their lobbying work is felt across the country, from Wall Street to Main Street: these former politicians influence how easily foreign products can replace American goods on store shelves; they advocate where billions of U.S. tax dollars are sent abroad; and they influence important decisions that affect the deployment of American servicemembers, some of whom are put in harm's way.

“Foreign interests are trying to interfere in this country in a big way - in our elections, in our marketplace, (and) they're trying to turn us against each other - that is intelligence data that’s known,” said former Congressman Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who now works as a consultant for IssueOne, a watchdog group that seeks to reduce the role of money in politics.  “Well, if they're trying to do that and we're not cleaning up the laws to protect ourselves of who's even representing them...shame on us.”

Former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) speaks with NBCLX's Noah Pransky in Washington, D.C.

Wamp says it’s all too easy for members of Congress to leave office and immediately go to work for foreign nations, thanks to outdated laws, poor enforcement, and a refusal by sitting lawmakers - from both parties - to reform a system that may one day put big paychecks in their pockets after they leave Congress.

He says the result is America’s priorities don’t always come first when it comes to how the legislative and executive branches spend U.S. tax dollars.

“This is a brave new world. But we don't have the current statutes in the law to keep people from taking advantage of us,” Wamp said.

And while foreign nations cannot send campaign donations to U.S. politicians, there are no rules prohibiting their lobbyists from doing so.  McKeon and his family sent checks to at least 15 of the 27 members he lobbied on the Saudi’s behalf.  

This includes money from his old campaign account, which he never closed down, even though his campaigning days were over, and despite the fact that the FEC prohibits politicians from personally benefitting from leftover funds.  The money his old constituents donated is now arguably helping advance Saudi priorities.

One of the lawmakers lobbied by McKeon, Congressman Joe Wilson, R-S.C., agreed to sign on to a Saudi-backed bill, just five days after a McKeon-brokered meeting between Wilson and the Saudi ambassador.  McKeon sent Wilson $1,000 checks from his old campaign account in the months before – as well as the months after – that meeting.

And after McKeon - and several other former lawmakers - lobbied officials on the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Saudis again saw return on their lobbying investment, as Congress reportedly stripped out several critical measures targeting the kingdom, just before the final version was passed. That included a prohibition on the U.S. selling the Saudis weapons, as well as penalties for the individuals associated with Khashoggi’s murder.

Neither Wilson nor McKeon accepted NBCLX requests for an interview.

A Long Way From “America First”

Concern about foreign influence in America’s democracy is as old as the country itself: George Washington called it “one of the most baneful foes of republican government,” Thomas Jefferson warned of getting “entangled” with foreign interests, and Alexander Hamilton predicted foreign powers’ “desire...to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.

But while the Constitution and federal laws prohibit foreign powers from spending money to influence American elections or give anything of value to elected officials, there’s nothing stopping those same interests from spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence American policies by hiring well-connected lobbyists.

In an effort to prevent Nazi propaganda from spreading in the United States, Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in 1938.  There were several dozen prosecutions in the law’s first three decades, but Congress narrowed FARA’s definition of influence in 1966, allowing foreign nations to have a bigger impact in American politics. 

The law still required lobbyists to disclose any work for a foreign country, but a 2016 Department of Justice audit revealed both poor compliance and lax enforcement.  Watchdogs tell NBCLX the problem had been ignored for decades and there are likely far more than just 50 former lawmakers getting paid to influence where America sends troops, supplies, and tax dollars. They want a full FARA overhaul.  

“The reason that foreign interests spend so much lobbying in the United States is because it works,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform for the Campaign Legal Center, another nonprofit focused on reducing money’s impact on politics. “The tens or hundreds of millions of dollars that foreign interests are spending on lobbying (affects) potentially billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer funds.

“We should expect that U.S. policy is being shaped in the interest of U.S. voters and U.S. citizens, not based on which foreign interest is spending the most on lobbying.”

Brendan Fischer, Director of Federal Reform for the Campaign Legal Center

The Center for Responsive Politics tracked $800 million flooding Washington firms - from just 10 countries - between 2017 and 2019.  Those countries were South Korea ($124M), Japan ($111M), Israel ($95M), Qatar ($82M), Marshall Islands ($70M), Saudi Arabia ($67M), Liberia ($63M), China ($63M), UAE ($62M), and Ireland ($60M).  Just outside the top-10 was Russia ($44M).

“Transparency about the identity of foreign interests bankrolling influence operations is fundamental for Americans to understand the credibility of propaganda targeting them,” said Center for Responsive Politics researcher Anna Massoglia.

Politicians with a large Washington rolodex can earn multiples of their $174,000 congressional salary by trading in their elected positions for private lobbying jobs.  But that’s a bridge too ethically far for some politicians. 

“How do they sleep well at night?,” former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wy., asked rhetorically of former members of Congress who lobby for controversial foreign interests.  “If you're getting paid, I guess that can trigger a new kind of belief.”

Simpson also called some of his former colleagues “whores” without providing specific names, and said the temptation of millions of dollars - even from questionable special interests - is too much of a lure for some to pass up.  In those cases, he wants to see better disclosure laws and better enforcement of FARA to protect Americans from the threat of foreign influence.

The Trump administration has given FARA a boost, both through compliance efforts and through increased enforcement, particularly after the Mueller probe shined a spotlight on secretive foreign influence.

Among those ensnared in federal investigations for alleged FARA violations were former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose undisclosed work on behalf of Ukraine interests led to a conviction, and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, whose undisclosed lobbying on behalf of Turkey throughout 2016 was not ultimately prosecuted once he pled guilty to other charges.

But while the White House and Department of Justice push foreign agents to comply with FARA’s transparency mandates, they’ve done little to pressure Congress to change a culture that allows former lawmakers to sometimes prioritize foreign interests over America’s.

Among the more than 50 former lawmakers-turned-foreign agents identified by NBCLX were well-known politicians, such as Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., Sen. Al D’Amato, R-N.Y., and House Majority Leader Dick Gephart, D-Mo. 

Most of the former officeholders did not respond to requests for comment, but some, like former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., provided short statements like, “we don’t have anything to add beyond what was included in our FARA registration.”  Former Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., wouldn’t comment except, “most of our clients are NATO allies and others are pro-western democracies.”

Ten of the foreign agents agreed to discuss their work, all of whom indicated they were selective about which interests they lobbied for and they were proud of the issues they advocated.  Some, such as former Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, and Porter Goss, R-Fla., held up their FARA disclosures as proof the system provides sufficient transparency and their work benefited U.S. diplomacy.  

Others acknowledged FARA relies too much on former members’ honesty and ethical boundaries.

“FARA’s been a very good thing (for transparency), but could the laws demand more? It’s certainly worth looking into,” said former Rep. Mike Andrews, D-Texas, who said he never lobbied on behalf of a foreign interest, but registered as a foreign agent of Saudi Arabia out of an abundance of caution when providing advice to the kingdom.  “There are instances where you really question, ‘why is (a former member of Congress) doing this? Is that in America’s interests?”

Former Congressmembers Jim Slattery, D-Kan., Toby Moffet, D-Conn., Rep. Don Bonker, D-Wash., and Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., each expressed similar sentiments, detailing their advocacy on behalf of human rights issues and suggesting FARA could be improved with more transparency and enforcement.  Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., and Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., were the other former members who agreed to interviews.

But those who were willing to talk proved to be the exceptions.  Many of the more than 40 former lawmakers who declined interviews also filed some of the least-transparent FARA disclosures, often failing to detail specific officials they met with or specific issues they discussed.  Since reporting guidelines are vague, the level of transparency in FARA filings is left up to the individual and his or her firm.

Hunter Biden Wasn’t Alone 

Hunter Biden, son of then-Vice President Joe Biden, was reportedly paid $50,000 per month for his work as a board member for a Ukrainian gas company from 2014 to 2019. But he wasn’t the only American with White House connections collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for his services.

In 2018, federal filings show a group of Ukrainian steel companies began paying $70,000 a month to the firm owned by former Congressman Bob Livingston, R-La., who has made tens of millions of dollars lobbying since resigning his seat over an extramarital affair scandal in 1998.

What did those companies get for their $70,000 per month?

Livingston’s disclosures aren’t particularly detailed, but they reveal the former congressman scored meetings to discuss his clients with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Trump’s then-chief of staff, John Kelly.

Impeachment testimony would later indicate Livingston repeatedly advocated the removal of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, who was pushing for Ukraine to crack down on political and corporate corruption.  

However, Livingston did not disclose those calls on his FARA filings, and he would later tell USATODAY the calls had nothing to do with his Ukrainian clients paying him nearly a million dollars a year.  He did not respond to NBCLX’s request for comment.  

Chinese Influence

When video surveillance giant Hikvision found itself facing sanctions in 2018 for alleged human rights violations against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled company turned to a proven strategy for staving off disaster: it hired former members of Congress.

Among Hikvision’s hires were former Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and former Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., according to 2018 FARA filings.  Former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., also disclosed lobbying on Hikvision’s behalf in 2018, but because he hasn’t filled out FARA disclosures since 2015, it’s unclear when his Hikvision work began.

For Vitter, his pledge to defend Hikvision appeared to be a departure from the stances he took on religious freedoms while in the Senate, when he co-sponsored a 2015 measure that would have required any U.S. trade negotiations to consider whether a country persecuted religious minorities.

Nevertheless, the lawmakers-turned-lobbyists worked their contacts in Washington for over a year, as Hikvision ultimately avoided America’s steepest sanctions, which would have included a ban on transactions with any U.S. agency and the freezing of its U.S. assets. Instead, Hikvision was hit with lesser sanctions, which likely saved the state-controlled company hundreds of millions of dollars - significantly more than the roughly $3 million the former lawmakers’ lobbying firms reported receiving from the company.

Vitter, who has also lobbied on behalf of controversial Russian clients, did not respond to NBCLX’s multiple requests for comment.  However, in a 2019 statement to the Washington Post, he defended his work with Hikvision “because it’s based on very concrete, meaningful changes to business practices and corporate governance in support of human rights.”

Neither Boucher nor Rehberg responded to NBCLX’s request for comment, and a representative from Hikvision declined to answer questions as well.

However, Hikvision is far from alone in hiring former U.S. lawmakers to defend Chinese-controlled entities, as former Sens. Dole and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have both disclosed relationships with Chinese companies through lobbying disclosures, as well as a handful of other well-known former politicians, some of whom never filed FARA disclosures.

A Turkish Twist

No country has built an arsenal of former congressmembers like Turkey, an American ally that has created international waves in recent years as it’s grown closer to Russia.  The nation - and groups linked to it - have hired at least 12 former American lawmakers to influence policy in Congress and the White House, according to FARA filings since 2015.

One of the Americans helping Turkey, which has received hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars in recent years, was former Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., whose firm is owned by one of President Trump’s top fundraisers, Brian Ballard.

According to FARA filings, Wexler and Ballard secured meetings with members of Congress, the State Department, and White House on Turkey’s behalf between 2017 and 2019.  They advocated against penalties for Turkey’s Halkbank, which successfully avoided U.S. sanctions for several years, even though the state-owned bank was allegedly laundering billions of dollars to Iran.

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote in his new memoir that Trump attempted to stop the criminal investigation into Halkbank prior to its eventual federal indictment by the Southern District of New York.

Turkey scored other Washington victories during this period, including control of Syria after an unexpected and controversial U.S. withdrawal of troops there in 2019, and by fending off American sanction threats after the country ignored U.S. warnings not to buy military rockets from Russia.

Wexler didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.  However, another former Congressman, Rep. McCrery, who lobbied for Turkey from 2015 to 2018, told NBCLX he was never asked to advocate priorities that he saw as at-odds with America’s.

“Direct conflicts of interests to the United States never arose during that time,”  McCrery said.

What It Will Take to Fix FARA

Watchdogs say out-of-date statutes and a history of limited enforcement prompt many individuals to bypass FARA filings altogether, even as the Trump administration slowly increases its enforcement of the law.

“Despite the gravity of the information divulged under FARA, it is not uncommon for records to omit crucial details or have other inconsistencies,” said the Center for Responsive Politics’ Massoglia. “Sometimes FARA documents are incomplete or incorrect, and sometimes foreign agents don't register at all.”

Some individuals, such as Hikvision lobbyist Boucher, file congressional lobbying disclosures in lieu of FARA disclosures, making it even more difficult to determine what kind of influence foreign interests are having on American policies and tax dollars.  This loophole in the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) was recommended for review by the DOJ’s inspector general, and several watchdog groups have advocated for closing the loophole altogether.

But fixes will require members of Congress to make moves that could impact their post-congressional financial futures. And one of the few things that both Democrats and Republicans in Washington often agree on, is preserving the lucrative system that benefits them all.

“This is bad. It erodes the trust that people deserve to have,” Wamp said.  “The government only works where we can have confidence in our elected leaders.

“We have to redo (FARA) and update it for the modern era where we have these new threats.  If (foreign nations) are going to play in our election space, then we’ve got to make sure that they don't play with our representatives.”

The List:

Below are the former members of Congress who have disclosed foreign relationships in FARA filings over the past five years.  This list does not include former members who are lobbying for foreign interests, but did not file FARA disclosures.

  • Tim Hutchinson, R-AR
  • Ronald V. Dellums, D-CA (deceased)
  • Ed Royce, R-CA
  • Dan Lungren, R-CA
  • Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-CA
  • Anthony John "Toby" Moffett, D-CT
  • Bruce A. Morrison, D-CT
  • James L. Bacchus, D-FL
  • Porter Goss, R-FL
  • Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL
  • Connie Mack IV, R-FL
  • Jeff Miller, R-FL
  • Robert Wexler, D-FL
  • Jack Kingston, R-GA
  • Mark Kirk, R-IL
  • Jerry Weller, R-IL
  • Bob Dole, R-KS
  • Jim Slattery, D-KS
  • Charles Boustany Jr., R-LA
  • John Breaux, D-LA
  • Robert L. Livingston, R-LA
  • Jim McCrery, R-LA
  • David Vitter, R-LA
  • Bill Delahunt, D-MA
  • Albert R. Wynn, D-MD
  • Peter Hoekstra, R-MI
  • Bart Stupak, D-MI
  • Gerry Sikorski, D-MN
  • Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-MO
  • Richard A. Gephardt, D-MO
  • Kenny Hulshof, R-MO
  • Trent Lott, R-MS
  • Clifford Ronald "Ronnie" Shows, D-MS
  • Denny Rehberg, R-MT
  • Earl Pomeroy, D-ND
  • Charles Bass, R-NH
  • Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-NY
  • Vito Fossella, R-NY
  • John McHugh, R-NY
  • John Sweeney, R-NY
  • Edolphus Towns, D-NY
  • James T. Walsh, R-NY
  • Bob McEwen, R-OH
  • Ron Klink, D-PA
  • John Tanner, D-TN
  • Mike Andrews, D-TX
  • Henry Bonilla, R-TX
  • Greg Laughlin, R-TX
  • Jim Moran, D-VA
  • Rick Boucher, D-VA
  • Randy Forbes, R-VA
  • Don Bonker, D-WA
Contact Us