By BEN FREEMAN and LYDIA DENNETT
Newt Gingrich has argued that he never was a "lobbyist" in Washington, DC, but that hasn't stopped him from turning to lobbyists for help in his presidential campaign, including at least four who have been registered to represent foreign governments. Now, an investigation by POGO has found that one of those advisers, Robert McFarlane, covertly lobbied for interests in southern Sudan and reportedly on behalf of the Sudanese government—without properly disclosing his activities to the U.S. government. At the time, Sudan faced U.S. sanctions, and special permission to lobby on behalf of Sudanese interests was required.
The Gingrich campaign could not be reached for comment. McFarlane did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
McFarlane’s work for Sudan was in apparent violation of U.S. sanctions, which were still in effect after the 2005 cease fire between Sudanese government forces and interests in southern Sudan, which had fought a decades-long civil war. His initially undisclosed work for southern Sudanese interests also raises serious conflict of interest questions about his subsequent work for the central Sudanese government in Khartoum—the other side in the civil war.
Robert “Bud” McFarlane has known Gingrich since the 1980s, when McFarlane served as national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan. The decades-old relationship recently culminated in McFarlane endorsing Gingrich, whose leadership is needed, according to McFarlane, because we’re going to face “the threat from Iran and others.”
This rationale for McFarlane’s support of Gingrich is ironic given McFarlane’s role in the Iran-Contra affair. In the wake of the scandal, he pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress and was sentenced to two years of probation, 200 hours community service and a $20,000 fine. He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Although registered foreign agents have advised other presidential candidates, few, if any, conducted themselves like McFarlane, who lobbied on behalf of a country facing U.S. sanctions, and did not register until years after his lucrative contracts had expired.
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A POGO investigation found that in 2008 McFarlane created and became the president of the U.S.-Southern Sudan Development Company (USSDC). The company was paid nearly $700,000 over five months by interests in southern Sudan for advice on “enhancing security, attracting foreign assistance, and attracting foreign investment,” according to records filed years later with the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). In addition, the company was to make “periodic inquiries to U.S. officials regarding U.S. policy” toward southern Sudan.
McFarlane disclosed that he met with six different State and Defense Department officials regarding a “sanctions waiver” for southern Sudan, which at the time was still part of Sudan, and did not gain independence until summer 2011. When McFarlane was representing interests in southern Sudan in 2008, Sudan was on the list of state sponsors of terrorism and was under U.S. sanctions. The sanctions required lobbyists to obtain permission from the U.S. government to represent Sudan, or interest groups in the country. There is no public record that McFarlane ever obtained this permission—and McFarlane did not respond to POGO’s requests for comment.
McFarlane’s firm did not register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) while working on behalf of interests in southern Sudan, as it was required by law to do within ten days of agreeing to represent foreign interests. The USSDC contract with the “Government of Southern Sudan” (which was not internationally recognized as a government at the time) was terminated in December of 2008, yet McFarlane waited nearly two years to register the USSDC and his lobbying activities. In September 2010, McFarlane filed under the FARA.
FARA filing is mandatory in this case unless the government grants a national security waiver for the filing requirement. POGO submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all such national security waivers—the Department of Justice reported last year to POGO that there were none.
McFarlane’s USSDC business partner, Albino Aboug, is reportedly the nephew of Salva Kiir, who would later become South Sudan’s first president. A contract with USSDC lists Aboug’s budgeted salary as $150,000 for the five months that he and McFarlane worked for the country.
McFarlane’s escapade involving interests in Sudan didn’t end in December 2008. Mere months later, McFarlane reportedly began working on behalf of the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which, again, was under U.S. sanctions. The government of Qatar served as a conduit between McFarlane and Sudanese intelligence officers, according to a 2009 front-page Washington Post article. The article reported that McFarlane had not disclosed his work in Sudan by another company he owned, McFarlane Associates Inc. The company was established in 1989, just a year after he pled guilty to charges stemming from his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.
McFarlane registered McFarlane Associates Inc. under the FARA in November of 2009—about a month after the Post story. On paper, his client was the government of Qatar, which signed a one-year contract with his firm “to broker a peaceful settlement between the Government of Sudan in Khartoum and the people of Darfur.” According to the Post, the deal between McFarlane and Qatar was actually brokered by an official in the Khartoum government who was in regular contact with the Sudanese intelligence chief.
The Post’s investigation concluded that, instead of halting the genocide in Darfur, their real goal was “to persuade Obama aides to lift sanctions and remove Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.”
Working towards this goal netted his firm more than $2.2 million in revenue (see here and here). Thus, McFarlane’s firms collectively earned nearly $3 million for their work on behalf of interests involved with Sudan.
What were McFarlane and his associates doing to earn these millions? Not much, at least according to FARA records. The records state that McFarlane and his colleagues attended five meetings, sent eleven emails, and made seven phone calls to U.S. government officials in their work for Sudan within the U.S.
In addition to contacting U.S. government officials, McFarlane also reported meeting with tribal leaders in an attempt to assist them with economic and political goals. But some questioned these activities. For instance, John Prendergast, co-chair of the anti-genocide Enough Project, told the Post that “When a paid consultant engages directly in the process in support of one of the belligerents, with real question marks about whose agenda is being served, that can be destabilizing."
McFarlane’s case offers a stark contrast to that of another lobbyist, Robert Cabelly. In October 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged that Robert Cabelly had been lobbying on behalf of Sudan from 2005-2007 and the DOJ indicted him for conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent, passport fraud, and money laundering, among other offenses. In October of 2005, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) condemned Cabelly’s lobbying on behalf of Sudan. Standing on the House floor, he railed against the “lobbying wheel of fortune” saying, “The United States government and the United States Congress stands united with the people of Sudan and any lobbyist who walks these halls on behalf of the Government of Sudan is not welcome.” According to FARA records, Cabelly officially terminated his contract with Sudan in February of 2006, but according to an FBI press release, he continued his lobbying through mid-2007 despite Rep. Wolf’s lambasting, the legal requirements to register, and the permission needed to represent Sudan.
Cabelly was indicted in October 2009—just a month after the aforementioned Post article revealed that McFarlane was also operating as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of Sudan via the Government of Qatar. Cabelly’s indictment occurred before November of 2009—when McFarlane registered McFarlane Associates, Inc.—and long before McFarlane registered his first contract with Sudan and the USSDC. Prior to registering the USSDC with President Obama’s DOJ, McFarlane actually met with the President in the White House along with other former U.S. national security advisors. So, while Cabelly faced prison time, McFarlane was meeting face-to-face with the President, and later served as one of the faces of Gingrich’s foreign policy team.
Ben Freeman is POGO's national security investigator. Lydia Dennett is a POGO research associate.
Image of McFarlane via C-SPAN.