There was an overwhelming amount of national and Iowa news this past week, from the Trump campaign indictments to Sam Clovis’ withdrawal from the USDA position to AmeriHealth Caritas leaving Iowa’s Medicaid system to the Texas church shooting.
And then there was one story that surfaced this past Thursday from the Associated Press’ Ryan Foley that could easily get lost in the chaos of all the other breaking news. It shouldn’t, however, as it involves one of the more outrageous acts of hubris in Iowa politics we’ve seen: well-known Iowa Republicans, some of whom are serving in Kim Reynolds’ administration, registered as foreign agents for Saudi Arabia to lobby against 9/11 victims, all while some of them allegedly misled veterans who they recruited for their efforts.
You should go and read the entire story in which Foley details how Kim and Connie Schmett, both major Iowa Republican activists, took just over $100,000 from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to lobby against a law that allowed 9/11 victims and family members to sue the Middle Eastern country. One veteran who Connie Schmett recruited to take a trip to D.C. to lobby members of Congress said that he was never told by her that the Saudis paid for the trip or were involved. When confronted by this, Connie told him over Facebook messenger, “PLEASE don’t share it. I’ll be in BIG trouble.”
That may or may not refer to how Connie failed to disclose her work on her financial disclosure form that is required of Iowa government officials – she serves on two important state boards.
However, there is much more to the Saudi Arabia story than what the AP covered, and it involves many more prominent Republicans and consultants. Eight Iowans in all were connected with the Saudi lobbying efforts, most being paid in some manner. The website 28pages.org has done extensive reporting on the topic, and the following information is largely based off their coverage, as well as some other news sites.
The Schmetts, Saudi Arabia And JASTA
Kim and Connie Schmett are major Iowa Republican political activists. Kim ran for Congress in 2008, but he lost to Leonard Boswell; Connie unsuccessfully sought the Senate District 22 nomination after Pat Ward passed away. Both serve in the Reynolds Administration after being appointed by former Governor Terry Branstad. Kim chairs the Iowa Employment Board; Connie serves on the Health Facilities Council and Iowa Cultural Trust Board of Trustees. Connie once worked for Branstad. Like many well-connected Iowa activists, they’ve been very involved in presidential campaigns – Connie was on Scott Walker’s leadership team.
As Foley noticed later, they’re also fundraisers for Reynolds.
— Ryan J. Foley (@rjfoley) November 3, 2017
In October of 2016 they both registered as foreign agents for Saudi Arabia in order to lobby against JASTA, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The law was pushed through Congress to make it easier for Americans to sue foreign countries for supporting acts of terrorism – the main impetus for it was 9/11 victims’ families wanting to sue Saudi Arabia for their role in allegedly helping the hijackers. Supporters hoped it would serve as an important anti-terrorism law, creating real consequences for states that may not be designated as sponsors of terrorism, but who still help those groups behind the scenes.
It had overwhelming support by Congress. JASTA was passed by Congress in late September 2016, vetoed by President Barack Obama, and then Congress overrode his veto by a large margin. It was the only veto of Obama’s entire presidency that was overridden.
Lawsuits against Saudi Arabia were immediately filed after its passage, starting on September 30, 2016. The wife of a Navy officer who was killed in the Pentagon attack was the first one to sue. In March of 2017, well over 2,000 victims’ family members and people injured in the attacks filed the largest lawsuit against Saudi Arabia.
Obviously, Saudi Arabia was not happy about this. So, they began hiring dozens of Americans to both lobby against the law and run a public relations campaign against it, starting off by hiring Qorvis MSLGROUP, a major D.C. lobbying firm. 88 Americans in all became involved in the anti-JASTA effort, 70 of whom are profiled in this 28Pages piece. Iowans make up a surprisingly high portion of the total. The Saudis spent over $1 million a month, dumping $8.4 million overall into the campaign that ran from October 2016 to March 2017.
Two of the people hired were Kim and Connie Schmett. Saudi Arabia paid $101,500 to their consulting firm. As government officials, the Scmetts are required to list on their annual financial disclosures all their sources of income. Connie did not disclose her work with Schmett & Associates, though Kim did. She told the AP that it was an “oversight.”
Lack of disclosure and transparency with Saudi Arabia’s lobbying efforts were a consistent problem. The website 28Pages.org, which first broke the news, said the lobbyists’ campaign “triggered accusations of rampant misconduct.” Many materials that were used for the lobbying effort didn’t disclose that Saudi Arabia paid for it, which is required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Even more problematic was their use of veterans.
The Veterans Trip
The biggest source of criticism over the Saudi’s American agents lobbying efforts center around a D.C. veterans trip conducted from January 23 to 26 in 2017. JASTA was already law at this point, but Saudi Arabia was hoping to amend it in a way that would undermine the lawsuits.
Qorvis’ lobbyists and subcontracted lobbyists put together a trip of about 50 veterans from around the country. The Daily Caller (a conservative news outlet) reported that the trip was a “luxurious, all-expenses-paid trips to Washington, D.C. for the veterans which include stays at the $500-per-night Trump International Hotel.” Indeed, financial disclosures show that Saudi Arabia paid $190,272 for lodging at Trump International, as well as an additional $78,204 for catering the group. Several veterans admitted after the trip that they were lured by the promise of a fancy visit to D.C.
“It is all expenses paid…it’s an awesome trip and basically like a 5 star vacation :),” one recruiter’s email said, according to a veteran who later said he was duped by the organizers.
An itinerary for the trip encouraged the veterans to wear their Purple Hearts if they had one, as well as any other medals they might have. Many of the details sound like your typical grassroots activists lobbying trip to D.C.
Their mission was to convince members of Congress that JASTA could potentially open up American soldiers to litigation from other countries for wartime activities. JASTA supporters dismissed this argument, as the law only deals with suing foreign states, not individuals (it also focuses only on terrorist actions, not military actions). Regardless, while this was the talking point supplied by Saudi Arabia, it clearly wasn’t their motivating factor in this.
And many veterans accused the organizers of not informing them about Saudi Arabia’s involvement. In fact, some of the veterans allege that the group’s leaders specifically said that the oil kingdom was not funding the trip.
Afterwards, they were not happy.
“I joined the Marine Corps after 9/11 to basically directly combat the Saudi fucking terrorists that did 9/11,” Iraq War veteran Tim Cord told 28Pages.org. “I joined as a result of Saudi terrorism activity, and to find out I’m on their fucking payroll and I’m on a ledger somewhere, I’m sitting in the Trump hotel having the time of my life, and I get to the realization that, goddamn, I owe them now, and that is not a cool feeling to have.”
Air Force veteran Tim DeMoss of Oklahoma was particularly incensed at Iowa’s Connie Schmett, who recruited him for the trip. As he told 28Pages.org, Schmett sent him information about JASTA that didn’t include a disclosure that it was paid for by Saudi Arabia, a requirement under FARA rules.
“She didn’t tell me who was behind it or anything like that,” DeMoss said.
DeMoss also showed several Facebook conversations he had with Schmett where she warned about discussing the trip publicly. She was even more adamant after the D.C. visit, telling DeMoss not to talk to the media about it. It was at that point that DeMoss pulled up Schmett’s FARA registration form, which showed she was working on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government.
“PLEASE don’t share it. I’ll be in BIG trouble,” Schmett replied to DeMoss.
It’s not entirely clear what she was worried she’d be in trouble for specifically, though it’s possible that her lack of disclosure for Iowa of her work was part of it. 28Pages.org tried to ask Schmett more about her involvement, but she responded with threats.
“I do not give you permission to write an article about me and if you do, you will hear from my lawyer,” she told 28Pages.org. “You’ll be sued.”
Republican Senator John Cornyn would later denounce the Saudi lobbying effort, saying, “This kind of conduct should gall every member of the Senate.” 9/11 victims and family members would lodge a formal complaint to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the entire trip.
And the payments to Trump International Hotel also caused a major controversy in June of this year about its potential violation of the emoluments clause. The Trump Organization said it would contribute all the profits from the Saudi payments to a charity.
However, the bigger question might revolve around what the Saudis hoped to gain by spending money at a Trump property. Trump has stayed particularly close to the Saudi government during his presidency, and has so far seemed to turn a blind eye to the authoritarian purge that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman carried out this weekend. Jared Kushner recently visit the kingdom on a quiet trip, and may have coordinated with the crown prince America’s response (or lack of) to the drastic moves.
Other Iowans Involved
Connie Schmett is only one of two Iowans who was mentioned in the stories about the veterans’ D.C. lobby trip, but others found themselves on the Saudi payroll. LS2 Group, a major Iowa consulting firm, also got in on the action, receiving $76,500.
LS2 Group’s staff didn’t turn up in other coverage of JASTA, but several of their staff worked on the account. Iowans Chuck Larson, Jr., Tyler Campbell, Bruceanne Phillips and Ashley Mae Hunt all registered as agents of the Saudi Arabian government. Three other LS2 Group employees from other states – Jay Hartner of Kansas, Tamara Ibach of North Dakota and Daniel Lederman of South Dakota (who recently became the chair of the South Dakota Republican Party) – were also listed as Saudi Arabian agents.
It’s rather likely that the senior Chuck Larson, who once served as the director of law enforcement for Saudi Arabia, made a connection here.
Another Iowan, David Niffenegger of Des Moines (who worked with Sam Clovis’ 2014 State Treasurer campaign), was apparently involved as well, though he didn’t fill out a FARA form. Marine veterans Tim and Daniel Cord say Niffenegger recruited them for the D.C. trip.
And the Saudi’s public relations effort was apparent in Iowa as well. The Daily Caller found that an op-ed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette by Iowa Green Beret veteran Don Pugsley (a Republican and big Joni Ernst supporter) had word-for-word similarities with other anti-JASTA op-eds around the country. A column in New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor was nearly a carbon copy of the piece.
Potential Political Fallout
All of this information has been in the public realm for months, yet no one in the Iowa press (including Starting Line) either knew about it or decided to write about it (until Foley). Still, it could present very serious political problems for leading Iowa Republicans.
The Schmetts still serve in Reynolds’ administration and are fundraisers for her. What will be the Governor’s response to Iowa officials who are drawing a paycheck from taxpayers that failed to disclose their lobbying efforts for Saudi Arabia against 9/11 victims?
Certainly, there were potential policy concerns over JASTA. But come on. Saudi Arabia didn’t pay all these Iowans because they were worried about the personal safety of American troops. They were doing it to avoid personal accountability for allegedly providing crucial assistance to the 9/11 hijackers, who killed thousands of innocent Americans. That’s what people like the Schmetts took foreign money for.
Those connections have caused serious fallout for politicians and consultants in other states. Four Nevadans’ involvement in the Saudi lobbying caused a scandal in that state. Newly-elected State Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod resigned from her job at a consulting firm after her FARA registration was revealed. Masschussetts U.S. Senate candidate Geoffrey Diehl faced criticism after one of his consultants was named in the Saudi Arabian lobbying efforts.
It’s also just a messaging problem for Republicans, who often position themselves as the party of patriotism and anti-terrorism. Several important activists in their party – including members of Kim Reynolds’ administration – were taking money from the Saudis to undermine 9/11 victims and their families.
That’s not a great look. Will anything happen from it?
by Pat Rynard