Former Senator Vitter among foreign agents paid to ease sanctions on Russian oligarch’s firm

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Former Sen. David Vitter, R-La (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Foreign agents running a lobbying and influence operation to ease U.S. sanctions on companies tied to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska were paid $543,958 over the past six months, according to newly released Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA)
disclosures made available through the Center for Responsive Politics’ Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

In May 2018, Lord Gregory Barker of Battle, a member of the British House of Lords and chairman of En+ Group — a Russian energy company formerly controlled by Deripaska — inked a six-figure-per-month contract with Mercury Public Affairs to lobby for the removal of U.S. sanctions imposed for Deripaska’s role in Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barker has paid the firm more than $650,000 since May.

At the crux of the operation is former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who left the Senate in 2017 and quickly entered the revolving door. Despite a two-year “cooling off” period that restricts Senators from immediately lobbying their colleagues under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, Vitter is still able to lobby other key figures in the Trump administration.

Earlier in 2018, President Donald Trump nominated Vitter’s wife, Wendy Vitter, to a federal judgeship with the U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

Vitter received 12 reported disbursements from Barker in June and July 2018, eight of which were for client meetings. In April, Vitter had several meetings with State Department and Treasury Department officials briefing them on Barker’s situation.

Among his activities, Vitter sent form letters to ambassadors from Australia, Germany, Jamaica and Sweden, urging them to press federal offices on behalf of the sanctioned company.

Vitter wasn’t the only big name Mercury enlisted to beef up their lobbying efforts for the sanctioned companies. Mercury also brought on former Trump campaign aide Bryan Lanza, assembling a contingent of the firm’s top lobbyists and foreign influence operatives.

Days before Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced his agency was considering lifting sanctions, Mercury filed FARA disclosures with the Justice Department announcing a new plan for sanctions relief from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) department.

Titled the Barker Plan, the document stated Deripaska had resigned as director of En+, that he agreed not to seek reelection as director of RUSAL and that the CEO and seven directors of RUSAL along with the president and director of En+, all of whom were appointed by or affiliated with Deripaska, had resigned.

Mercury advocated for the removal of the companies from the sanctions list by warning that “a failure by OFAC to provide a path forward would have severe negative repercussions for both the administration and the global economy.”

The firm also argued that if the Barker Plan was not fully put into effect, En+ could seek “a potential acquisition by Chinese interests or the potential nationalization of the company by Russia.”

Mnuchin also mentioned the threat of Russian nationalization when justifying the department’s December 2018 decision to lift sanctions on the companies, and noted they had been restructured to reduce Deripaska’s stake in the companies to below 50 percent.

In a letter to Congress, Treasury OFAC Director Andrea Gacki defended the decision to remove sanctions writing that “this action – a removal based on a change in factual circumstances that is in line with longstanding U.S. sanctions precedent and practice designed to change behavior – is not intended to significantly alter U.S. foreign policy.”

Senate Democrats and 11 of their Republican colleagues weren’t sold, voting Wednesday to block the Treasury’s decision but falling just short of the required 60 vote threshold. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voted against the Senate’s resolution. In September 2018, Vitter’s Louisiana Reform PAC gave $3,750 to McConnell’s Bluegrass Committee PAC. The House voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to formally disapprove of the rollback of sanctions.

OFAC has reportedly vetted trustees to oversee Deripaska’s shares that he will relinquish to Russia’s state-owned VTB Bank as well as those held by his family.

The Treasury Department has reportedly chosen David Knower of Cerberus Capital Management, David Crane, senior operating executive at Pegasus Capital Advisors and D.J. Baker, former global chair of corporate restructuring at Latham & Watkins LLC, to oversee the shares that Deripaska will relinquish as part of the deal, according to Bloomberg.

Both Mercury and Deripaska have come under scrutiny by federal prosecutors in New York over ties to former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s influence operations benefiting the Russian government and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Retroactive FARA disclosures revealed the group has a tight relationship with the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, a nonprofit believed by U.S. officials to be linked to pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians.

Mercury also gained a level of notoriety due to controversial influence operations for clients like Chinese telecom giant ZTE and Chinese government-subsidized surveillance technology company Hikvision.

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