By Brian P. McGlinchey
A U.S. Senate campaign faces controversy after the Boston Herald published a story on a key strategist’s participation in a Saudi lobbying campaign against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
Massachusetts state representative Geoffrey Diehl, who is running for the 2018 Republican nomination to oppose incumbent senator Elizabeth Warren, hired Holly Robichaud to serve as a campaign strategist. 28Pages.org previously reported that Robichaud, a political consultant and columnist for the Boston Herald, registered in October 2016 as an agent of the Saudi government.
JASTA cleared the way for 9/11 victims and insurers to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the September 11 attacks. Robichaud was among some 70 political influencers across the nation pressed into service by Qorvis MSLGroup as the firm scrambled to unleash a broad attack on JASTA on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Given Saudi Arabia’s apparent goal of preventing 9/11 families from presenting evidence against the kingdom in a court of law, Robichaud’s work could be an especially sensitive topic in Massachusetts: The two planes that terrorists used to strike the World Trade Center departed from Boston’s Logan Airport, and more than 200 Massachusetts residents died that day.
In the most controversial aspect of the Saudi lobbying campaign, veterans were given expenses-paid trips to Washington to lobby against JASTA. Many say they weren’t told Saudi Arabia was orchestrating their participation; some were outraged to learn they had become unwitting agents of the kingdom in its effort to thwart the lawsuit filed by 9/11 victims.
When asked by the Herald about her participation in the Saudi campaign, Robichaud said she did not keep veterans in the dark about the kingdom’s sponsorship of her work. (If you’re a veteran and were solicited by Holly Robichaud or anyone else to pressure Congress to amend JASTA, we want to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Senate candidate Diehl seemed to gloss over the specific nature of Robichaud’s work for Saudi Arabia. “She’s worked on many campaigns in the past,” Diehl told the Herald’s Jack Encarnacao. “The work that I’ve done with her…makes her someone who I trust to help in this campaign, and I think that’s where my focus is.”
Defending her participation, Robichaud told the Herald that JASTA “opens the door for our military members…being sued.”
That claim of peril to service members and veterans was central to the Saudi-Qorvis campaign—and according to a former counselor on international law at the State Department, it’s false.
“JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts. JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals,” said William S. Dodge, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law in a February interview with 28Pages.org.
The Herald also quoted Robichaud as saying “the work was strictly on the same position as the American Legion and VFW.”
Asked by 28Pages.org if Veterans of Foreign Wars supported changes to JASTA, VFW spokesperson Randi Law says, “No. The VFW did not take an official stance on this.”
The American Legion’s Joe Plenzer tells 28Pages.org that when his organization takes a position on an issue, it usually does so through a formal resolution. “I checked our resolutions and found no resolution on JASTA,” he says. “I also checked with our legislative director and we have no letters of support on file for this issue.”
Update: Appearing on Boston’s WRKO radio on Thursday, Robichaud repeated the false claim about the VFW and American Legion, as did host Jeff Kuhner.
The Herald story noted that “some vets who were active on the bill went on to complain publicly that they weren’t told who was paying the political consultants who were helping them exert the Congressional pressure.”
Allegations about the Saudi lobbying effort, however, are even more serious than the Herald indicated, and include a wide range of possible criminal violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000.
In March, a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice, seeking a national security investigation into the Saudi campaign. The complaint identified many apparent FARA violations, including:
The Herald reported that Robichaud earned $12,000 in the campaign. However, that’s the amount she wrote on the form she used to initially register with the DOJ as an agent of the kingdom last October. A post-campaign report filed by Qorvis shows that many participants received far more than they’d projected on their registrations; some earned less.
It appears agents’ compensation was transactional—for example, awarding a certain amount for persuading a veteran to write a letter to Congress and a higher reward for convincing one to travel to Washington.
Robichaud’s name is not on that Qorvis disclosure. That could indicate she was paid by an intermediary firm that was paid by Qorvis and Saudi Arabia.
Update: On Facebook, Robichaud is “friends” with Patrick Hynes. His firm, Hynes Communications in New Hampshire, worked for the Saudi campaign and received $56,000. Hynes is also a partner at Novus Public Affairs, which received $128,750 for its work for the kingdom. The firm also employs Brennan Ward, who was a registered Saudi agent and is also a Facebook friend of Robichaud.
There’s no indication yet of what specific actions Robichaud performed in the Saudi lobbying drive. In addition to recruiting veterans to fly to Washington, others in similar roles urged veterans to email or phone legislators or to add their names to “open letters” to Congress.
Lobbyists also facilitated the placement of opinion pieces in newspapers—some of which used identical paragraphs with different veteran “authors” on the bylines. One such identically-worded opinion was expressed in a letter to the editor of the Concord (NH) Monitor submitted by Ken Georgevits of Concord.
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