A prominent and politically connected Denver law firm has been making $125,000 a month lobbying on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia — a link that is drawing new scrutiny after the bipartisan outcry over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.
Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s representation of Saudi interests dates back at least two years, and this summer the agreement was renewed until the end of the year. According to the deal, BHFS is to represent the Saudi embassy on a potentially broad portfolio of issues that “will be communicated on a regular basis to BHFS as determined by the embassy.”
In the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, though, new attention has been focused on the Saudi government’s expansive lobbying operations in Washington. Two firms severed ties with the kingdom after The Washington Post told the lobbyists they could no longer both continue representing Saudi Arabia and writing opinion columns for the paper, where Khashoggi worked.
BHFS will not cut ties with Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing, “just as the United States is not terminating its relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said Al Mottur, a Washington-based BHFS shareholder who is one of the firm’s lobbyists for Saudi Arabia.
Mottur said Saudi Arabia is a significant economic and national security partner for the United States “in the most volatile region in the world.” The country is especially important for America’s fight against terrorism, Mottur said. The United States also views Saudi Arabia as a crucial ally in countering Iranian influence in the Middle East and in protecting Israel.
“We don’t believe it is in our client’s interest, in our interest or in the United States’ interest to abandon them during this crisis,” Mottur said.
After a series of denials, Saudi authorities have now said Khashoggi’s killing inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey was a premeditated act, and the country has arrested or dismissed nearly two dozen people in connection with the death. Though experts say it is unlikely such a killing would have been carried out without the support of the kingdom’s royal court, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has denied knowledge of the operation, and the United States has not officially accused Saudi Arabia of state-sanctioned murder.
A political powerhouse — based in Denver
BHFS is headquartered at an address on Denver’s 17th Street, but it also maintains a large office in D.C.
The firm’s lineup of attorneys can sometimes read like a Who’s Who list of political power players, both locally and nationally. It recently added Douglas Friednash, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s former chief of staff, as a shareholder. When Boulder resident Deborah Ramirez came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet put her in touch with former Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett — another prominent BHFS shareholder.
All of the BHFS lobbyists listed in federal disclosures as working on behalf of Saudi Arabia are based in the firm’s Washington office, and none has significant ties to Colorado, though they share the firm’s high political profile. Mottur is a prominent Democratic strategist and served on Hillary Clinton’s national finance leadership team for her presidential campaign. Marc Lampkin, the managing partner of BHFS’s Washington office and another lobbyist listed in federal disclosures as working for Saudi Arabia, was previously an adviser to former Republican House Speaker John Boehner and also served on President Donald Trump’s transition team.
From outsider beginnings as a Western firm trying to break into East Coast influence circles, BHFS has grown to become one of the biggest lobbying firms in Washington. Last year, it brought in nearly $29 million in lobbying money, and it has already made more than $22 million so far this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Both totals make it the No. 2 lobbying firm in Washington, something BHFS proudly advertises.
BHFS has also been paid $50,000 this year by the Colorado governor’s office for lobbying work, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Late last year, Hickenlooper’s office announced it would not renew its $17,500-a-month contract with BHFS, which the governor’s office began in the hopes of forging better ties to the Trump administration. The contract ran out in February.
Saudi lobbying surge
BHFS is one of at least six lobbying firms representing Saudi interests in D.C. this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and most have chosen to maintain their business with Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s killing.
The kingdom significantly stepped up its lobbying in 2016, when it added BHFS to its growing fleet of firms fighting the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The bill opened the door for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia; Congress overrode the veto of then-President Barack Obama to pass the law.
According to Center for International Policy data provided to Time magazine, the Saudi government spent $27 million on lobbying last year, up from $10 million in 2016.
“We are very pleased and privileged to work with you.”
Since that initial contract, BHFS has expanded its work for the Saudi government. Filings made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show that BHFS lobbyists contacted members of Congress from both parties dozens of times this year on behalf of the Saudi government through phone calls and emails.
The lobbyists have sought to arrange meetings and dinners with the Saudi ambassador or the crown prince. They have delivered gala invites. They have discussed everything from defense spending to arms sales to Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be Secretary of State. One particularly prominent subject has been Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen, a conflict that has resulted in more than 10,000 civilian deaths, many the result of airstrikes by Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces.
BHFS lobbyists have provided members of Congress with informational materials defending Saudi Arabia’s activities in Yemen and touting the country’s defense agreements with the United States, according to filings. “A United Front Against a Shared Threat” was the title of one such document. Another assured, “Saudi Arabia has taken several steps to create a more thorough vetting process for target selection and validation for the Saudi-led Coalition’s operations in Yemen.”
Federal disclosures show that BHFS lobbyists had more than 60 contacts with members of Congress or their staffs regarding Yemen in the weeks prior to a Senate vote this spring on a resolution to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war. The resolution failed.
The lobbyists also distributed information talking up Saudi Arabia’s economic development plans. The document — subtitled “Our Vision: Saudi Arabia … the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment powerhouse, and the hub connecting three continents” — was signed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
BHFS’s original deal with Saudi Arabia, signed in September 2016, called for the firm to be paid $100,000 a month and allowed BHFS to mention the firm’s representation of the kingdom in marketing materials.
A renewed agreement, signed this summer, upped the monthly fee to $125,000. But it also added a new caveat.
“We are very pleased and privileged to work with you,” Mottur wrote in a letter to Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and a younger brother of Mohammed bin Salman. “We shall not name you in marketing materials unless you provide consent in writing and in advance.”