$4.2 million to dispute a single word

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Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, a joint project of ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation, digitizes information that representatives of foreign governments, political parties and government-controlled entities must disclose to the U.S. Justice Department when they seek to influence U.S. policy. Filings under the Foreign Agent Registration Act provide more details on how lobbyists interact with government officials than those required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act; they contain information on efforts by foreign governments and organizations to influence U.S. policy on trade, taxation, foreign aid, appropriations, human rights and national security.

You may query the database by member of Congress contacted, country, client or lobbying firm. You can also search by “contact issues” as reported by lobbyists. Here are some sample queries: “Robert Wexler“, “Tax“, and “Executive Office of Dubai.”

With the roll out of the influence tracker database, ProPublica also published two accompanying articles Adding it up: The Top Players in Foreign Agent Lobbying and Opening the Window on Foreign Lobbying. The latter by Anupama Narayanswamy and Luke Rosiak, Sunlight Foundation and Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica. The following is excerpted from that piece (reprinted under Creative Commons):

Map of TurkeyImage via Wikipedia

$4.2 million to dispute a single word

Perhaps no player in the field shows the influence of foreign agents as much as Robert Livingston, the powerful ex-appropriations chairman who was in line to be House Speaker before a scandal derailed him. His firm, Livingston Group [6], reported the highest number of contacts with government officials, and Livingston was the second-biggest political giver among lobbyists for foreign agents, listing more than $99,000 in campaign contributions, most of which went to members of Congress. His clients — including the governments of Azerbaijan, Egypt, Libya and the Republic of Congo and the Bank of the Netherlands Antilles — showered his firm with $5 million in fees, the third-highest total among all firms that reported during the period.

Also among them was one country with a longstanding image problem: Turkey. From 1915 to 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians perished, many at the hands of the Ottoman government, but a precise description of the events has been an extraordinarily sensitive subject in Turkey. The issue also has risen regularly in Congress, thanks in part to American-Armenian groups that have pushed for government affirmation [7] that the killings amounted to genocide.

In October 2007, with elderly Armenian survivors from the era in attendance, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved a resolution [8] that would do just that. The next step would be a vote before the entire House, something Turkey wanted desperately to avoid. On more than any other issue, Turkey, which has a U.S.-led war in Iraq on its border, is seeking help in a longstanding effort to join the European Union.

The genocide question split U.S. leaders. All eight living former secretaries of state at the time sent a letter warning Congress that offending Turkey could have serious diplomatic consequences for the United States. Both Barack Obama and his chief opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, were in the Senate; Clinton backed a resolution recognizing the genocide, and Obama made it a campaign pledge.

Turkey’s lobbyists made contact with the executive branch 100 times in a coordinated effort to persuade congressional leaders to squash the resolution. The Livingston Group worked Congress. The firm’s lobbyists contacted the office of Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., author of the resolution, four times on Oct. 4 to arrange a meeting with Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy. A few weeks later, Sensoy was withdrawn in protest of the House’s consideration of the measure.

Turkey didn’t lobby just Congress — the country hired foreign agents to promote the cause with people outside the administration, too. Noam Neusner, who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, worked the powerful Jewish lobby, meeting with an array of groups including the influential American Israeli Public Affairs Committee [9] a combined 96 times to persuade them to oppose the resolution, FARA records show. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, and relations have been generally positive; but in the end, AIPAC supported the resolution.

On Oct. 26, 2007, some sponsors of the resolution backed off a full floor vote, and the legislation never advanced. FARA records quantify the effort Turkey’s lobbyists put into the issue: 673 contacts in a single month, and more than 2,200 in the filings overall — the most of any country.

In all, records show, Turkey spent $4.2 million to mobilize its lobbyists to influence a resolution that hinged on the single word — genocide. Some $1.9 million of that went to DLA Piper [10], a top-50 U.S. law firm that operates globally and has taken on such high-profile cases as the defense of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. The dispute demonstrates the power of labels — and the lengths to which a country will go to protect its world image.