By Kevin Bogardus - 09/13/12 01:12 AM EDT
Georgia’s opposition party leader is pulling no punches in his campaign to win backing from the United States and has hired close to a half-dozen firms in Washington to plead his case to Obama administration officials.
Lobbyists and public relations operatives for Bidzina Ivanishvili, one of the world's wealthiest men and the head of the Georgian Dream coalition, are focusing on Georgia's parliamentary elections on Oct. 1 — and emails, memos and contracts on file with the Justice Department show that Ivanishvili's representatives are aggressively courting U.S. support.
In an August 31 email to Cheryl Mills, the State Department's chief of staff, Thomas Boggs of Patton Boggs urged her to take notice of Georgia. He attached a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Ivanishvili himself.
"I hope the State Department will do all it can to make sure this election is truly free, fair, and competitive; too many U.S. interests are put at risk by a political crisis in Georgia," Boggs said in the email. "As always, I am happy to provide any additional information you might need. Thank you again for making sure this letter gets into the Secretary's hands."
Boggs, one of K Street's biggest names, is just one of the lobbyists working on the Georgian elections.
Ivanishvili went on a hiring spree earlier this year. About a dozen lobby shops, public relations firms and consultants in the United States are either representing him or the Georgian government.
Ivanishvili, worth $6.4 billion according to Forbes Magazine, says the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili is persecuting backers of his Georgian Dream coalition. The Georgian government has countered that they will hold free and fair elections, and note that international observers back that claim.
Firms that represent Georgia's government in Washington are pushing back against Ivanishvili’s lobbying onslaught.
“As noted in all of our previous releases and correspondence on this matter, Mr. Ivanishvili is being treated like any other citizen and has all of the protections and all the options available to anyone under Georgian law,” John Anderson, a principal at the Podesta Group, wrote to reporters in an April 4 email.
Podesta Group is one of several firms working for the Georgian government. Gephardt Government Affairs, consultant Gregory Maniatis, Prime Policy Group, as well as Orion Strategies and its subcontractor LynxDC — founded by Josh Block, the former AIPAC spokesman — are all working on behalf of Georgia.
A spokeswoman for the Georgian Embassy said the country has implemented reforms that will result in free and fair elections.
“Our efforts have focused on communicating the election reforms passed and implemented by the Georgian government that will ensure free, fair and transparent elections, and we're heartened by reports from non-partisan international observers, including today's statement by the U.S. delegation, that say Georgia's on the right track,” said Julie Giorgadze, the embassy spokeswoman.
Giorgadze pointed to remarks that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia made in Georgia on Wednesday. He said that, despite some shortcomings, there was a competitive campaign underway in the country, according to press reports.
Ivanishvili has spent more than $1.4 million on lobbying fees for 2012 so far, according to Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) records. Firms working for the billionaire have since registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), overseen by the Justice Department. Those firms include Patton Boggs; National Strategies; Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms; and the Downey McGrath Group.
In an email, Paul Joyal with National Strategies said his firm switched to registering under FARA because Ivanishvili “is now actively campaigning” in Georgia. Lobbyists can represent private citizens under the LDA but they should register under FARA if they are advocating for foreign political figures and parties.
National Strategies has been one of the more active firms on Ivanishivili’s behalf. The firm’s sister company, kglobal, helped produce a documentary about him.
“Our crew was dropped into a country where we were unwanted, didn't speak the language and put under incredible pressure to produce a piece with little to no knowledge about this man. But after looking him in the eye and hearing people speak to his character over the span of a week, we were transformed by his story,” said Thomas Frank, kglobal’s managing director, in a blog post on the company’s website.
National Strategies also agreed to manage Ivanishivili’s Twitter followers, close to 35,000 now, draft op-eds and congressional floor statements, create a website, as well as recruit “high-level allies” like former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Gen. Barry McCaffrey (ret.), according to its contract on file with the Justice Department.
Joyal said the firm had not recruited Ridge or McCaffrey to Ivanishvili’s cause.
Lobbyists also checked on who might be traveling to observe the elections in Georgia. In a Sept. 6 email to a congressional aide, Mark Danner with National Strategies asked if he could refer an aide.
“Please advise if we can refer Jessica Lee, on Congressman [Jim] McDermott’s [D-Wash.] foreign policy staff, … since she would like to go to Georgia as part of an observer team,” Danner wrote.
In another email, Danner asked for help to have former Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas) be an election observer.
McDermott has taken a position on Georgia, and introduced a bill in March to ban U.S. foreign aid to Georgia until the State Department certifies that the October elections were free and fair.
“I had heard about a possible trip to Georgia for election monitoring organized by the Helsinki Commission. I have no additional information, was not invited, and do not plan on going as I will be taking time off (unpaid) to campaign in Virginia,” Lee said in an email.
McDermott’s bill has no co-sponsors, and there’s no indication that it will receive a markup, according to Lee.
All of the lobbying effort on behalf of Ivanishvili seems to have had little impact in Washington so far.