"Weldon's day off to a bad start, then gets progressively worse," is how Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon's hometown paper, the Delaware County Daily Times, put it in a headline yesterday. Indeed. Even as Weldon was denying the existence of an FBI investigation into whether he used his influence as a congressman to help out his daughter's government relations firm Solutions North America, the FBI was raiding six locations, including his daughter's home, that of her business partner, and the Jacksonville, Florida offices of her main client, Russia's Itera International Energy Corp.
By nightfall Monday, The Washington Post was reporting that a grand jury impaneled in May had "obtained evidence gathered over at least four months through wiretaps of Washington area cell-phone numbers and has scrutinized whether Weldon received anything of value.” Weldon's denials of the investigation's existence petered off over the day, replaced now by accusations that the timing of the leak of the investigation, three weeks before the election, was politically motivated. Moreover, Weldon's new line went, the FBI was somehow propelled to act by a vast left-wing conspiracy involving watchdog outfit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, former Clinton Justice Department official and 9/11 commission member Jamie Gorelick, and former Clinton era national security advisor Sandy Berger.
In fact, Weldon did inadvertently make one good point in crying foul at the timing: many of the facts of the case have been in plain sight for over two years, since The Los Angeles Times reported them:
Weldon has brought his daughter so deeply into his official activities that they sometimes appear to be working in tandem. For example:
After a Russian aerospace manufacturer [Saratov] hired Karen Weldon's firm for $20,000 a month plus 10% of any new business it generated, Rep. Weldon pitched the company's saucer-shaped drone to the U.S. Navy, which signed a letter of intent to invest in the technology. And Weldon, who chairs a subcommittee that oversees $60 billion in military acquisitions, has been working to get funding for the project, Navy officials say…
The congressman helped round up 30 congressional colleagues for a dinner at the Library of Congress to honor the chairman of a Russian natural gas company, Itera International Energy Corp., that had just agreed to pay his daughter's firm $500,000 a year to "create good public relations." Records show Solutions North America helped arrange the privately funded affair for the company…
Karen Weldon's firm paid for her father's chief of staff to take a "fact-finding" trip to Serbia, where he met with U.S. Embassy officials about the Karics' visa problems. The congressman approved the arrangement, travel records show. House ethics rules bar members or staff from taking official trips paid for by lobbyists or registered agents of foreign companies …
Since presumably the FBI has more investigatory powers than The Los Angeles Times, and many of the facts of the case were available anyhow in public records, one does have reason to wonder if something new came to light that prompted the impaneling of the grand jury in May.
One possibility is merely that these investigations are very methodical and just take a lot of time. But a Reuters report on Monday suggests another possibility:
U.S. law enforcement official said the government investigation went beyond the 2004 allegations. He said the Justice Department had received additional information that "has renewed interest in this issue."
So what "additional information" might the Justice department have received in the spring that prompted the impaneling in May of a secret grand jury in Washington?
There are two clues offering two different answers. One clue appears at the very end of The Washington Post piece: Four Itera officers gave a total of $8,000 to Weldon's campaign in late April. $4,000 came from a vice president of Itera named Theodoros Kavalieros and his family member Nikolaos Kavalieros, while $2,000 came from Itera's U.S. director of government relations, Lazar "Lonya" Finker.
It's not clear if all those who donated that day are U.S. citizens or U.S. residents. A new lobbyist for Itera, Alcalde-Fay's Jennefer Hirshberg, told me her only contact at the company was Finker, and that she herself wasn't sure of his citizenship. Calls to Finker and Itera's Jacksonville offices were not answered.
What's at issue here? Non-U.S. citizens and residents are not legally allowed to contribute to American politicians. “The legal regime that governs foreign nationals' participation in U.S. political activities is much more strict than” those governing U.S. citizens, explains Washington attorney Brett Kappel. “And it falls under a much more serious criminal statute than the lobbying disclosure act.” In other words, if foreign nationals donated to Weldon on April 20, it would have been a criminal violation of the federal election campaign act.
But a Washington lobbying expert who asked to speak on background has another theory: someone cooperating with the Justice Department on another matter might have tipped them off to Weldon. That person: Jack Abramoff.
“I think that Abramoff told them that his Russian clients told him this Russian company [Itera] had an in with Weldon,” he said. “The info provided by Abramoff would have been sufficient for the FBI to get a warrant for the wiretaps.”
It should be recalled that Abramoff's then-lobbying firm Preston Gates had among its clients another shady Russian energy firm, Nafta Sib. In February 1999, eleven months before Preston Gates' political action committee contributed $500 to Weldon's campaign, Weldon seemed to do Nafta Sib a favor. He entered praise of Nafta Sib and its chairman Alexander Koulakovsky into the Congressional Record. On the face of it, that potentially looks like the kind of arrangement engaged in by Representative Bob Ney of Ohio, who has just pled guilty to corruption charges. Abramoff might have been able to tell the Justice Department whether it actually was such an arrangement.
Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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