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Politics and Government

A Denver-based lobbying firm working for Saudi Arabia met with the White House amid the fallout from a journalist’s killing

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia paid Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck $1.8 million last year to represent its interests in Washington, D.C.

Snow covers the bushes Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, outside the North Portico entrance of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
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A lobbyist from Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, working on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia, sought and ultimately obtained a meeting with a White House official last year amid the outcry over a journalist’s killing at the hands of Saudi agents, according to a federal regulatory document.

Lobbyist Marc Lampkin, the managing partner of BHFS’s Washington, D.C., office, requested the meeting in an email sent Dec. 5 to Amy Swonger, a Trump administration official who leads the White House’s Senate legislative affairs team, according to the document. Two days later, according to the document, Lampkin and Swonger met for a “general discussion of (the) current situation,” according to the document, which was filed by BHFS in compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The document provides no more precise details about that meeting — or about any of the nearly two dozen contacts BHFS lobbyists working for Saudi Arabia had with members of Congress following the Oct. 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote for The Washington Post among other publications.

In a statement, BHFS said the meeting had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s killing.

“We were making general inquiry calls about current legislative status,” BHFS spokeswoman Lara Day wrote in an email. “The firm did not make calls on behalf of the client regarding Khashoggi.”

The document is a blandly titled “supplemental statement” that must be filed twice a year and broadly details work performed on behalf of foreign governments or companies. BHFS is the second-largest lobbying firm in Washington and also one of the Saudi government’s most prominent lobbyists, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

After Saudi agents killed Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul — an act the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency says Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered —  BHFS said it would continue representing the kingdom, which it described as a key strategic partner for the United States.

“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,” Al Mottur, a BHFS lobbyist, said in November.

The new filing, then, gives an indication of BHFS’s work for Saudi Arabia in the months after Khashoggi’s killing.

Much of the lobbying work continued to focus on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which the United Nations late last year estimated has killed at least 16,000 civilians. But, despite BHFS’s statement that it did not make any calls regarding Khashoggi, the document appears to contain clear indications of lobbying that would have at least touched on the journalist’s killing.

For instance, on Dec. 11, Lampkin had a call with an aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell regarding an unspecified “Yemen resolution,” according to the document. Later that day, Lampkin sent an email to the same aide for a “Follow-up to call regarding Corker Resolution.”

That appears to be a reference to a resolution introduced by former Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker that called for a ceasefire in Yemen and condemned Khashoggi’s murder. The resolution specifically said Prince Mohammed was responsible for the murder.

Though the resolution was not formally introduced until Dec. 13, Corker announced on Dec. 11 that he planned to introduce it.

Corker’s resolution — as well as another, from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, that demanded the removal of U.S. forces from Yemen — passed the Senate last year with bipartisan support.

Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner voted in favor of Corker’s resolution. Bennet, a Democrat, also voted in favor of Sanders’ resolution, while Gardner, a Republican, opposed it. (Lampkin called an aide to Gardner on Dec. 17, several days after the vote on the resolutions, to discuss an unspecified Yemen resolution, according to the document.)

Both senators received campaign contributions from BHFS’s political action committee last summer, prior to Khashoggi’s killing.

Prior to the vote, Mottur made several phone calls to Senate aides regarding Sanders’ resolution, according to BHFS’s filing. Day, the BHFS spokeswoman, would not say whether the firm lobbied for or against the resolutions.

Mottur also had a phone call in late November with an aide to Murphy to discuss, “Congressional inquiry to representation,” one of several apparent references to attempts by members of Congress to learn more about the firm’s work on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Mottur sent an email to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office on Nov. 30, one day after she announced that she was trying to learn more about Saudi Arabia’s lobbying efforts. The document also references an inquiry from now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.

BHFS’s contract specifies that the kingdom pay $125,000 a month for lobbying services — though filings show that the firm received $1.8 million in payments, an average of $150,000 a month, during all of 2018. Day said the totals also reflect payments for work done outside the filings’ timeframe.

In addition to its federal lobbying work, BHFS is a powerhouse in Colorado political and legal circles. Its roster includes people elected to public office — such as former Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett — and those who helped get them there — such as Doug Friednash, who previously served as chief of staff to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The firm’s lobbyists and its political action committee made nearly $170,000 in campaign contributions in the second half of 2018, according to the document. That includes more than $45,000 made following Khashoggi’s killing.

This story was updated at 1 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2019, to correct the name of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.