Hillary Clinton says there is nothing to hide in her scandalous personal email account, now apparently half-deleted. But leaked emails from her longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal show that he and another former official from Bill Clinton's administration were secretly lobbying the secretary of state on behalf of a billionaire in the former Soviet state of Georgia who was seeking closer ties with Putin's Russia—seemingly in violation of a federal law designed to prevent foreign powers from covertly wielding influence within the United States.
As Gawker reported last week in collaboration with ProPublica, emails from Blumenthal's hacked account revealed that he was running what amounts to a private, off-the-books intelligence operation for Clinton, sending her detailed reports on goings-on in Libya, Europe, and elsewhere. Among these memos is one urging Clinton to consider re-examining the State Department's posture toward the opposition in Georgia.
In 2012, Georgia was gearing up to elect a new prime minister. Oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili led the opposition Georgian Dream party, which called for closer relations with Russia—a state that had invaded Georgia only four years earlier. He was opposing the incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had enjoyed U.S. support.
Ivanishvili was eager to meet with then-Secretary of State Clinton, but found himself snubbed during a state visit in June 2012. In September 2012, Blumenthal prepared a long, official-looking memo for Clinton on the subject of the Georgian election. It passed along a note from John Kornblum, an international lawyer who had served as ambassador to Germany under Bill Clinton. According to Blumenthal's memo, Kornblum was "working with the political party in Georgia opposing Saakashvili"; contemporaneous press accounts corroborate the fact that Kornblum was formally acting as an adviser to Georgian Dream.
Blumenthal's preamble to the memo warned that Georgia "could be a potential hot spot a month before the U.S. election" if Saakashvili decided to "ratchet up tensions with Russia" as a political maneuver. Though he wrote that he was passing on Kornblum's memo "without comment," it is clear that Blumenthal thought the ideas should be taken seriously.
Kornblum's memo was a full-throated plea for Clinton to warn Saakashvili not to crack down on Georgian Dream before the elections. Continued support for Saakashvili, he wrote, "would turn Georgia into a Caucasian Cuba and make sure we never had a reasonable security relationship with Russia." Kornblum also passed along a personal letter to Clinton from Ivanishvili himself, in which Ivanishvili accused Saakashvili of undemocratically attacking his party and asking for Clinton's support: "The Georgian people are waiting for a clear signal that America understands and supports their dreams for democracy."
Kornblum wasn't just a geopolitical hobbyist. He was a lobbyist for a pro-Putin politician who was exploiting a connection to the secretary of state. Blumenthal, perhaps eager to get a chance to play diplomat after being rejected for an official State gig, happily played middle-man. The memo clearly constitutes evidence that Kornblum sought to influence U.S. policy on behalf of a foreign political leader, and that he enlisted Blumenthal for help in that project.
Generally speaking, it's fine to lobby U.S. officials on behalf of a foreign power, as long as you register with the U.S. Department of Justice. If you don't register, it's a crime.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, known as FARA, is designed to prevent undisclosed meddling in American politics by foreign interests. At its heart, FARA is a transparency law—if you're working for a Chinese bank or a Turkish minister while inside the U.S., you're required to disclose your affiliation along with some financial details about the relationship. According to the statute, anyone who attempts to "influence any agency or official of the Government of the United States...with reference to formulating, adopting, or changing the domestic or foreign policies of the United States or with reference to the political or public interests, policies, or relations of a government of a foreign country or a foreign political party" must register with the Justice Department within 10 days of doing so.
Neither Kornblum nor Blumenthal filed reports with the Justice Department disclosing their efforts to lobby Clinton on behalf of Georgian Dream, according to a search of the FARA online database. Other U.S. citizens who did register as operatives of Georgian Dream include Al Gordon, CEO of D.C.-based lobbying firm National Strategies, LLC, and Romano Romani, CEO of the public relations firm Parry and Romani Associates Inc.
Gawker spoke to four attorneys who specialize in FARA to ask whether Kornblum and Blumenthal were required by the law to report their activities on behalf of Ivanishvili. One, who spoke on the record, said it sounded like an apparent attempt to short-circuit the normal legal process by routing the contact through Blumenthal, who was not a government official, rather than Kornblum directly reaching out to the State Department. The three others, all of whom insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, said in no uncertain terms that Blumenthal and Kornblum both should have registered before lobbying Clinton.
Amos Jones, a Washington, D.C., attorney and FARA expert and Assistant Professor at Campbell Law School, said the contact was a "legal-loophole-laundering dynamic"—a way to dodge FARA. "If they were clients of my firm, I would be looking very closely," he said. "[Their behavior] raises questions of compliance with the statute."
Another FARA attorney who spoke only on background said that both men should have registered for their attempts to influence Clinton. Even Blumenthal's single email to Clinton relaying Kornblum's concerns, the attorney said, obligated him to register under the law. "Technically, there's no minimum," he said. All that matters is "if you are acting at the request of a foreign government in an attempt to influence American political interests." A second FARA attorney who also spoke on background agreed with this assessment.
A third attorney deeply versed in the FARA statute said Kornblum and Blumenthal's efforts were precisely "the type of activity that is meant to be captured" by the law, even if the lobbying is done on an informal basis: FARA covers "anybody who's [lobbying] directly or indirectly," he added. "If you could just hire a middle man to get out of registration, it would be a giant loophole in the law," he said. If a foreign entity tried to launder influence through unregistered individuals, he said, "the Department of Justice would have a problem with that."
The purpose of FARA is narrow and clear. The Department of Justice website points out specifically that "in 1966, FARA was significantly amended to focus on the integrity of the United States Government decision-making process, and to emphasize agents seeking economic or political advantage for their clients." Ivanishvili's consultants in America with duties as lightweight as mailing out DVDs and tweeting links were compelled to register and document their activities to the Justice Department, as D.C.-based firm National Strategies, LLC, did:
It's hard to imagine how someone with a direct line to the State Department would feel exempt from the law when SEO jockeys were not.
Kornblum did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Reached by Gawker on his cell phone, Blumenthal hung up when asked about the memo.
Gawker attempted to reach Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon to ask whether the department intended to launch an investigation into Blumenthal and Kornblum's failure to register. The maximum penalty for willfully violating FARA is up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Fallon did not return repeated phone calls or emails. On April 1, he will leave the Justice Department to join Clinton's presidential campaign as press secretary.