Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff retroactively registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for work he did last year involving the Republic of Congo.
At the behest of a European man, Abramoff attempted to set up a meeting between then-President-elect Trump and Congo’s president, Denis Sassou Nguesso. Filings say he did not earn any fees for the work, and his lawyers say that Congo did not benefit from it.
It had been known that Abramoff, who was convicted of various corruption charges, worked with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) reportedly to press Trump for U.S. support for an African alliance to fight Boko Haram. Abramoff has a friendship with Rohrabacher that goes back decades.
The filings shed some new light on who was behind the work, but specifics still remain murky.
The registration comes four months after Politico first reported the relationship between himself, Rohrabacher and a “European friend” that he had declined to name.
Disclosure forms that appeared on the Justice Department's website on Thursday lists the client as Iancu Costel, whose address is listed as a company called Global Structures Group in Romania.
Business records reviewed by The Hill show that the company was set up in June 2016.
Costel is an Italian national, Bloomberg reported, citing Abramoff’s lawyers, but not much else is known about him.
His firm called Abramoff for three months, according to registration forms, asking the former prominent Republican fundraiser to “obtain a contract to consult with the Republic of Congo.”
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires people to register with the Justice Department if they do any consulting, lobbying or public relations work for a foreign government, foreign public official and any entity that is influenced or funded by a foreign government.
The Justice Department reportedly asked Abramoff to register as a foreign agent.
Since leaving prison, Abramoff has been speaking out about corruption in Washington, pushing for more reforms and eschewing his old K Street ways. This is the first time Abramoff has resurfaced in the Washington influence world.
Abramoff was never able to facilitate a contact or meeting with Trump, but Rohrabacher flew to Congo as part of a congressional delegation earlier this year, where he met with the Congolese president.
Abramoff was in the country at the time at his own expense, but forms say he did not participate in any government meetings.
The Politico report, published in February, indicated that Abramoff’s “European friend” had business in the Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, after its capital city. The distinction separates the country from its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Critics call Congo-Brazzaville’s leader, Sassou Nguesso, a strongman, and the country has faced allegations of human rights abuses.
Among other things, the businessman Costel allegedly wanted to “further the Congo’s agenda,” which included fighting the extremist group Boko Haram, facilitating bilateral trade between the country and the United States, addressing “illegal African immigration to the U.S.,” and rehabilitating Congo’s imagine in the U.S. and abroad, as well as a few other priorities.
“Although Mr. Abramoff did not believe he was in a position to assist with this effort at that time, Mr. Abramoff was contacted by Mr. Costel’s office in late December and was advised that the President of the Republic of Congo, Sassou Nguesso, was en route to Palm Beach, Florida in the hopes of meeting with President-Elect Trump,” Abramoff’s disclosure says.
Trump was going to his Florida resort, Mar-a-Largo, at the time.
After that last call, forms say, Abramoff hopped on a plane to Florida to try and set up a meeting between Trump and Sassou Nguesso. Forms say he paid for the flight himself.
In a since-deleted tweet, a spokesman for Sassou Nguesso displayed a picture of “an official looking document” indicating the African leader and Trump would be meeting on Dec. 27. A Trump spokeswoman countered, saying that there were no meetings between the two on the schedule.
During his trip, Abramoff also made calls to Rohrabacher, “since Rep. Rohrabacher has been a leader in Congress opposing radical Islam,” to arrange the meeting. Abramoff subsequently wrote a letter for Rohrabacher to give to the Congolese leader, urging discussion of a meeting, and eventually tried to set up a phone call instead.
The letter was sent on Rohrabacher’s congressional letterhead, according to the Politico report.
After the meeting with Trump failed to materialize, Rohrabacher reached out to Sassou Nguesso — after being given a number from by Costel — about the items of interest.
"All I know is that Jack comes to me and says ... 'we have a chance at putting together something to get rid of this group that's murdering all these Christians in Africa. Would you be interested in following through on this?' I said of course I was," Rohrabacher told Politico in February.
While Abramoff’s interactions with Rohrabacher resulted in meetings between the lawmaker and Congo’s leader, the lobbyist’s attorneys insist that Congo didn’t benefit from the work.
“To [Abramoff’s] knowledge, Mr. Costel was never engaged by the Republic of Congo. Furthermore, Mr. Costel never came to any agreement with Mr. Abramoff of any kind. No future work for or on behalf of Mr. Costel or the Republic of Congo is contemplated,” disclosure forms say.
A letter Abramoff’s lawyers sent to the Justice Department said “it does not appear that the Government of the Congo benefited in any way as a result of Mr. Abramoff’s activities or those of the Italian national,” according to Bloomberg.
This isn’t the first time Abramoff has attempted to facilitate meetings between African heads of state and American officials.
He once was one of the most prominent lobbyists in Washington, but fell from grace after it came to light that he had been, among other things, grossly overbilling Native American tribes he had as clients and showering lawmakers with gifts.
Prior to his conviction, Abramoff allegedly requested $9 million in exchange for setting up a meeting between President George W. Bush and President Omar Bongo of Gabon.
Although the two leaders met in the Oval Office 10 months after Abramoff’s offer, according to the New York Times report in 2003, there had been no evidence Abramoff received any payment or was the catalyst for the White House meet-up.
The Abramoff investigation and subsequent conviction led to a significant overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules.
In the early 2000s, Abramoff had also represented Democratic Republic of Congo’s leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, to ease restrictions the United States had imposed on him.
When Abramoff led the lobbying shop at law firm Greenberg Traurig during the same period, the firm represented the tiny east African country of Eritrea, according to Justice Department disclosures. It was trying to make the case to policymakers that the United States should take advantage of its strategic location during the Iraq war.