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Justice Dept. accuses 2 political operatives of hiding foreign lobbying during Trump administration

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Two well-connected political consultants provided false information about lobbying work on behalf of a wealthy Persian Gulf country during the Trump administration, according to Justice Department court records unsealed Tuesday.

Charging documents filed in federal court in Washington allege that Barry P. Bennett, an adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, spearheaded a covert and lucrative lobbying campaign aimed at advancing the interests of a foreign country, including by denigrating a rival nation.

The country for whom the work was done is not named in the documents but it matches the description of Qatar, which in 2017 paid Bennett’s company $2.1 million for lobbying work, and was identified in a 2020 Justice Department subpoena that was earlier obtained by The Associated Press and that sought records related to Bennett’s foreign lobbying.

Federal prosecutors filed two criminal counts against Bennett in a charging document known as an information, which is typically filed only with a defendant’s consent and generally signals that the parties have reached a resolution. Prosecutors said the case will be dismissed after he complies with the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement, including the payment of a $100,000 fine.

The Justice Department also reached a similar agreement with Douglas Watts, a New Jersey political consultant who prosecutors say worked alongside Bennett and failed to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The law, enacted in 1938 to unmask Nazi propaganda in the United States, requires people to disclose to the Justice Department when they advocate, lobby or perform public relations work in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign government or political entity.

A lawyer for Bennett did not immediately return messages sent to his law firm. Justin Dillon, a lawyer for Watts, declined to comment Tuesday evening. An email to the Qatari embassy was not immediately returned.

According to the Justice Department, Bennett signed a contract in 2017 for his company, Avenue Strategies, to perform lobbying work on behalf of the Qatari embassy. He also registered with the Justice Department that year to lobby for the embassy.

But as part of that strategy, prosecutors said he also covertly operated another company called Yemen Crisis Watch that operated a public relations campaign to denigrate one of Qatar’s unnamed rivals — both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were engaged in military operations in Yemen that critics say contributed to a humanitarian crisis — and improve Qatar’s standing with the U.S. government.

That effort included lobbying Congress and Trump, as well as a social media campaign, publishing opinion articles in newspapers and producing a television documentary, according to prosecutors. Yemen Crisis Watch urged the public to contact their lawmakers and urge them to “cease supporting” the intervention in Yemen by Qatar’s unnamed rival, prosecutors said.

Robert Schuller, a prominent televangelist, and former Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer both helped Yemen Crisis Watch’s efforts, according to earlier reporting from the Wall Street Journal and the Topeka Capital-Journal. Neither man has been charged with any wrongdoing and messages sent to them were not immediately returned.

Prosecutors say Bennett’s consulting company did not disclose in its FARA filings the creation of Yemen Crisis Watch, and that Watts made false statements during interviews with the FBI about his knowledge of the company’s formation and its activities.

The case is among severalprobes by federal law enforcement officials related to Qatar’s aggressive influence campaign during the Trump administration, when it was the target of a blockade by Saudi Arabia and other neighbors.

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Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia.


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