Politics & Government

Sacramento firm represented Arab sheik while partner gave to Obama inauguration

Before his 2009 inauguration, newly elected President Barack Obama made a public pledge not to accept money for the celebration from representatives of foreign interests.

That didn’t stop a top partner at California Strategies, one of Sacramento’s premier public affairs firms, and his wife from donating big dollars. The firm had taken an exiled Arab sheik on as a client just before the 2008 election and registered with the federal government as a foreign agent, designating partner Jason Kinney as the one in charge of a publicity campaign on the sheik’s behalf.

But Kinney himself did not register as required, and within months he and his wife gave $52,000 for the inauguration, according to data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. In total, the records show, two California Strategies partners, one associate and one spouse gave a combined $158,000 to the committee planning Obama’s inaugural festivities.

The episode marked another influence-wielding misstep for the prominent firm better known for its work within California. In September, the state’s political watchdog agency fined the firm and three of its partners – including Kinney – for hiding some of their business from public view by not registering with the state as lobbyists.

Kinney declined to respond to questions from The Sacramento Bee. Firm spokesman Michael Bustamante said the firm sought to follow the rules regarding foreign agent registration, and that those who attended the inauguration weren’t there to benefit the sheik.

“This was a historic inaugural and there were a number of people who wanted to participate because they wanted to witness history,” Bustamante said. “That was the extent of the thinking.”

Kinney supported Hillary Clinton in the primary and chaired an independent expenditure committee that ran negative ads against Obama.

Once elected, Obama pledged an inaugural celebration that would “change business as usual in Washington,” and banned contributions from federal lobbyists, non-U.S. citizens and Americans registered as agents of foreign governments.

Still, the Kinneys traveled to Washington for the event, where billboards for Sheik Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi congratulated the new president. The sheik also was there.

“A few minutes ago, Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States. I and my family were honored to be just a short distance from him,” the sheik wrote on Jan. 20, 2009, according to an archive of his blog.

A footnote on the blog says, “These materials are distributed by California Strategies on behalf of His Highness Sheik Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi…”

The firm was brought on to introduce the sheik to U.S. government officials and mount a public affairs strategy that cast him as an ally of the United States in his effort to regain power in an obscure region known as Ras al-Khaimah. The monarchy, one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates, is home to roughly 200,000 people, and at 650 square miles, is smaller than Sacramento County.

As Ras al-Khaimah’s crown prince, Sheik Khalid had been in line to become its next ruler until 2003 when his father gave that honor to another son. Sheik Khalid left Ras al-Khaimah in exile, splitting his time for the next few years between the neighboring country of Oman and London, according to The Guardian, a British newspaper.

Enter California Strategies.

The sheik brought the firm on in 2008 to raise his international profile as his father, already frail, entered his 90s. Kinney’s campaign portrayed leadership by the other son, Sheik Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, as a security risk to the United States because of his alleged ties to Iran, and cast Sheik Khalid as more in line with U.S. values by promoting his interest in clean energy and women’s rights.

“The strategy will possibly involve a media component as well as facilitating introductions with U.S. government officials, foreign policy specialists and business leaders,” said the firm’s 2008 foreign agent filing with the federal government.

A ‘bloodless coup’

Over the next two years, Sheik Khalid, through California Strategies, spent $3.08 million on the campaign, including payments to lobbyists, advertisers, bloggers, photographers and highly connected Democratic consultants. His message appeared on billboards in Washington, D.C., on bus ads in New York City and on a Twitter feed, where the sheik described meetings with former Vice President Al Gore and retired Army General Wesley Clark. The sheik was welcomed with a special message on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ scoreboard.

The firm dispensed gifts from the sheik – described in federal filings as maps of the Middle East – to more than a dozen officials, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Kinney brought on several colleagues from California Strategies as well as political consultants with ties nationwide. They included veterans of Gov. Gray Davis’ campaigns, including Garry South, Ed Emerson and Peter Ragone, who also worked for Gavin Newsom when he was mayor of San Francisco; alumni of former President Bill Clinton’s administration, including Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani in California, as well as Greg Hale and Robert McLarty in Arkansas; and Washington, D.C., lobbyists with bipartisan ties to Congress.

The money was good. The sheik paid Kinney $25,000 a month, according to federal filings, and most of the other consultants between $5,000 and $12,500 a month for the part-time gig.

The strategy also included hiring former New York Times reporter Michael Janofsky to write a blog in the sheik’s voice. After 24 years with the newspaper, Janofsky was launching a career as a freelance writer. He said a political consultant working for the sheik – whom he declined to identify – connected him to the $5,000-a-month job.

“When I was first contacted about this I said, ‘Who? From where? Why?’ It sounded so crazy to me,” said Janofsky, who lives in Los Angeles.

Janofsky wrote about the experience earlier this year in the Los Angeles Review of Books, where he described his year of ghostwriting blogs in which the sheik criticized Iran, raved about visits to the United States and reflected on devotion during Ramadan.

“Our plan – the sheik’s, his handlers, and mine – was to pound out three blog entries a week to convince the sheik’s aging father that the tiny stretch of land controlled by the sheik’s family for more than 200 years was better left in the hands of my guy, who had closer ties to Washington,” Janofsky wrote.

“I had a new project, diving into international intrigue with a general outline of the situation and relative freedom to splash around as I wanted. The only caveat was stay true to the cause: Sheik good. Half-brother bad. Iran worse.”

The campaign on behalf of Sheik Khalid eventually drew international scrutiny, with The Guardian describing it in June 2010 as an attempt to pull off a “bloodless coup” and naming Kinney as one of six main players.

In October 2010, the sheik issued a news release – included in California Strategies’ federal filings – announcing his father’s death at the age of 92, and saying he looked forward to impending meetings with “rulers of the emirates to discuss our shared vision for Ras Al Khaimah and its great people.”

Three days later, a Washington, D.C., think tank reported that the sheik was “under ‘palace arrest,’ with newly installed concertina wire encircling his compound.” Armed troops guarded the palace, preventing the sheik from attending his father’s funeral, said the Oct. 29, 2010, report from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The sheik’s contract with California Strategies officially ended two days later.

Tools of democracy

The campaign appears to have been ineffective. Today, the sheik’s half-brother, Sheik Saud, is the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, according to the emirate’s official website. The status of Sheik Khalid is unclear. The United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington did not respond to The Sacramento Bee’s question about him, and his former attorney in England did not answer The Sacramento Bee’s email. His blogs and Twitter account are inactive.

Power struggles within families are not uncommon in Middle Eastern monarchies, where sons have long battled over who will take the reins after their father’s death, said Mahmood Monshipouri, a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.

“This kind of rivalry is very typical of Arab countries,” said Monshipouri, who teaches a class in Persian Gulf politics. “There are a lot of things going on in terms of wealth, influence and competition among them.”

While many of those tensions don’t surface in U.S. publicity campaigns, he said it makes sense that Sheik Khalid would try to manipulate his standing through lobbying and marketing, the commercial tools of Western democracy.

“They are trying to play that kind of politics,” he said. “When they see a problem they throw money at it.”

A desire to limit the influence of money in politics was apparent in the announcement from Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee shunning donations from corporations, lobbyists and foreign agents, and limiting individual donors to $50,000. In a news release, the committee touted its “unprecedented set of limitations on fundraising as part of President-elect Obama’s pledge to put the country on a new path.”

The limits were a matter of preference, not law. Committee co-chair Julianna Smoot said her team vetted donors to make sure they met the criteria.

California Strategies first registered as a foreign agent for Sheik Khalid in October 2008, about three weeks before Obama was elected. The firm’s registration with the federal government names Kinney as the person designated to render services to the sheik from Ras al-Khaimah. But Kinney himself didn’t personally register as a foreign agent until the following June, federal records show, along with a half-dozen other consultants working on the project.

That’s not the normal process for foreign agent registration, said Joseph Sandler, a Washington, D.C., lawyer with Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb who specializes in federal lobbying regulations. Individuals who represent foreign entities are supposed to register at the same time their firm does, Sandler said. The Department of Justice website says foreign agents must register with the government “before performing any activities for the foreign principal.”

The requirement dates to 1938 when Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act in response to the large number of German propaganda agents in the United States before World War II, according to the Department of Justice. The goal was to provide transparency for the public about who is working to influence public opinion on behalf of foreign entities.

California Strategies first registered as a foreign agent in the summer of 2005, when it signed up to represent China’s national oil company during a bid to merge with Unocal. No individual partners from the firm registered as foreign agents at the time.

Bustamante, the California Strategies spokesman, said the firm didn’t find out until later that individuals – in addition to the firm – are supposed to register as foreign agents. Around the same time that Kinney registered as a foreign agent for the sheik, he and two other California Strategies partners also registered retroactively for work they had done four years earlier for the Chinese oil company.

“We worked very closely with outside counsel to make sure all the legal requirements were met,” said Bustamante, who also registered as a foreign agent for the sheik. “What we learned later on was that not only did the firm need to file but individuals needed to file as well, which we did.”

The delay in individual registrations means it would have been difficult for Kinney’s name to turn up as a foreign agent during the vetting process for the January 2009 inauguration. Records on file with the Federal Election Commission show a $50,000 contribution under his wife’s name and a $2,000 donation under his.

On the same day in December 2008 that Mary Kinney contributed $50,000 to the inauguration, California Strategies partner Jared Ficker and associate Devon Ford made donations of the same amount. Ford registered in June 2009 as a foreign agent for the sheik.

Bustamante said Ford did very little work for the sheik and that Ficker didn’t work on that campaign at all.