Thursday, December 9, 2004

FBI agents this week searched the Virginia and D.C. offices of a public relations firm that has a multimillion-dollar contract with the government of Saudi Arabia, in what company officials said yesterday was a inquiry into whether the firm was in compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“We understand that the government is conducting an inquiry into FARA compliance,” said Rich Masters, spokesman for Qorvis Communications LLC., whose offices were searched Tuesday. “Qorvis has fully complied with this regulatory statute, and we feel confident the matter will be resolved favorably.”

The FBI, which searched two Qorvis offices in the District and one in McLean, confirmed the searches but declined to elaborate. Officials at the U.S. attorney’s office in the District said the case is under seal and declined further comment.

One source familiar with the FBI raid said Qorvis officials were told by the agents that they were not the target of the investigation.

FARA, which is administered by the Justice Department, requires every agent of a foreign principal to register with the department and file forms outlining its agreements with, income from and expenditures on their behalf. The forms, which are public records, must be updated every six months.

Saudi Arabia is Qorvis’ only foreign government client.

Created in August 2000, Qorvis reportedly is paid a $200,000 monthly retainer by the Saudi government for public relations efforts. The contract has been in effect since March 2002.

In December 2002, the New York Times reported that three Qorvis founding partners had quit the firm, citing what they called “a deep discomfort in representing the government of Saudi Arabia against accusations that Saudi leaders have turned a blind eye to terrorism.”

The three partners were identified as Bernie Merritt and Jim Weber, longtime Republican strategists, and Judy Smith, a former White House deputy press secretary who became the spokeswoman for Monica Lewinsky during President Clinton’s impeachment.

In addition to representing the Saudi government, Qorvis has worked for the government of Haiti, where — according to a lobbyist registration report — it “participated in the preparation or dissemination of informational materials” on behalf of the country.

Other clients have included the American International Group (AIG), an insurance giant that hired Qorvis for crisis management during an investigation by the New York attorney general’s office of the insurance industry. Qorvis reportedly sought to hire financial analysts to publicly criticize the probe. AIG later fired Qorvis.

The firm’s managing partners are Michael Petruzzello, Doug Poretz, Curtis Robinson, Esther Thomas Smith, Michael Tucker and Karen Vahouny.

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