- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2016

In the underworld of political lobbying, John Podesta is king. He co-founded the Podesta Group, whose international client list is long, and its access to top U.S. politicians unparalleled.

Yet, it’s a murky world. The Podesta Group represents morally dubious foreign leaders, countries that commit atrocious human rights violations — and at least one bank — with direct ties to the Kremlin.

And all these shadowy figures are looking to buy U.S. influence.

In that regard, Mr. Podesta has unfettered access.

He currently operates as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman. He’s previously served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and as a counselor to President Barack Obama. His brother, Tony Podesta, is a top bundler for Mrs. Clinton and an active lobbyist at the Podesta Group. Mrs. Clinton has received $12.6 million in lobbyist backing, with Tony Podesta raising more than $100,000 this cycle.

As the mainstream media investigates the old lobbying ties Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort had in Ukraine, it’s only fair to take a look at the Podesta Group and the influence they currently peddle around the globe.

Let’s start with Russia.

As The New York Times explained it in a mini-expose they did on Mr. Manafort: “With [Vladimir] Putin’s Russia, and its interference in Ukraine, becoming a focus of the United States presidential campaign…..[Mr. Manafort’s] work in Ukraine has come under scrutiny — along with his business dealings with the prominent Ukrainian and Russian tycoons.”

So too, should the Podestas.

The Podesta Group registered in March to lobby on behalf of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, tasked with improving its image with U.S. lawmakers, and to help get some U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia’s aggression in the Crimea lifted.

The bank needs a good PR firm because most observers believe it plays a major role in helping the Putin regime fund Russian spies and enrich Mr. Putin’s cronies.

“Funds moving through Sberbank are regularly used to support clandestine Russian intelligence operations, while the bank uses its offices abroad as cover for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR,” John Schindler, a former National Security Agency analyst, wrote for the Observer in April.

Because the bank is technically a private institution, the Podesta Group didn’t have to report it as a state-owned entity, which would have required a more detailed lobbying report under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. In addition, Sberbank, controls almost 30 percent of Russia’s aggregate banking assets, and is tied to companies associated with Mr. Putin’s inner-circle to help funnel state resources into profitable private investments, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium of journalists that explored the Panama Papers leak, which exposed some of the bank’s ties.

Working the account are Tony Podesta, Stephen Rademaker, who served in the State Department during the Bush administration and David Adams, who served as assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs under Mrs. Clinton. The Group also represents other countries with controversial human rights records — trying to paint them in a sunnier light to U.S. lawmakers.

Azerbaijan, a small, oil-rich country nestled between Russia and Iran, is a U.S. ally that touts its good relationship with Israel, but whose critics complain of endemic corruption, rigged elections and mistreatment of reporters and dissidents. Few nations in this part of the world have sterling records on these issues and many, perhaps including Azerbaijan, are trying to improve, but the Podesta group seems more interested in shielding its clients from criticism than in working to improve both their image and record.

Consider the Podesta Group’s tactics in trying to squelch criticism of Azerbaijan in Congress last year. At a February Capitol Hill briefing organized by Maran Turner, Executive Director of Freedom Now approached, the Podesta group swung into action.

Ms. Turner says, Podesta staffers called “every single office to convince them not to attend,” Foreign Policy reported. “Podesta also contacted staffers of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, under whose auspices the briefing was being held, and asked them to cancel it. Though the briefing went ahead, only a few staffers ended up attending (though over a dozen had RSVP’d).”

Other Podesta clients include the South Sudanese government, whose forces “bore the greatest responsibility” for human rights violations in 2015, according to a United Nations report, and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia pays the Podesta Group $140,000 a quarter presumably to make sure Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair’s brother and close friend personally carries its water; the Kingdom’s contract, like others of its kind, is mum on the details of Podesta’s mission, but it’s no secret Saudi Arabia has been lobbying U.S. lawmakers to kill legislation that would allow family members of 9/11 victims and other terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments.

Lobbying clients pay prodigious amounts to win support from the friends of the powerful and some, like the Podestas, are open to working their relationships on behalf of clients that others might wish to go elsewhere.

Make no mistake: Politics is an insiders game and it’s the insiders who profit often at the expense of the rest of us and the interests of our country.

• Kelly Riddell is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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