Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48) is seeking re-election in 2018. Could payments he took from Paul Manafort, Trump’s indicted campaign manager, and other foreign agents for the pro‑Putin Ukraine government cause him to lose the election? If voters are repelled by Rohrabacher’s cozy relationship with corrupt lobbyists or by possible criminal charges against him, the defeat of Rohrabacher could help the Democrats to take back the House of Representatives.
Rohrabacher’s corruption relates to payments he received in 2013, when Rohrabacher and other Congressmen met with foreign agents and lobbyists who were illegally working for Viktor Yanukovych, then President of Ukraine, and his corrupt Party of Regions. Two of the other Congressmen involved in the scheme were Representative Ed Royce California and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho. The lobbyists’ work was illegal because they were not registered as foreign agents as required by federal law, and because they were paid with money from the Government of Ukraine and a Ukraine political party. The money was illegally laundered through offshore accounts by Paul Manafort and his partner, Rick Gates. According to Paul Manafort’s indictment, the lobbying effort concerned “Ukraine sanctions, the validity of the Ukraine elections and the propriety of Yanukovych’s imprisoning his presidential rival, Yulia Tymoshenko (who had served as Ukraine President prior to Yanukovych).”
Both Royce and Rohrabacher are members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where Royce is Chairman. Rohrabacher chairs the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, which includes issues concerning Russia and Ukraine. Jim Risch is on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. By exchanging meetings for payments to their campaign committees, Rohrabacher, Royce, and Risch sold access to Congress to Yanukovych, the government of Ukraine and the Party of Regions.
On March 8, 2013, John Vincent Weber, a former congressman, paid $500.00 to Royce’s campaign fund. Weber was a foreign agent and lobbyist working for Mercury Public Affairs, a DC lobbying firm. Mercury was one of the lobbying firms paid by more than $2 million by Manafort and Gates to act as a foreign agents for Yanukovych, the Ukraine government and the Party of Regions. On March 14, 2013, Royce met with Ed Kutler, Weber’s partner, as part of the Ukraine lobbying campaign. After the March 14 Meeting, Kutler, Weber, Michael McSherry, Dierdre Stach, and Gregory Lankler, all lobbyists with Mercury, paid $5,250 to Royce campaign fund. On March 19, 2013, Manafort and Weber met with Rohrabacher. Within 3 days of this meeting, Manafort, Weber, and Ed Kutler gave $2,500 to Rohrabacher’s campaign fund. On November 13, 2013 Weber, Kutler, and McSherry met with Senator Risch. On December 4, 2013, Weber, Kutler, and McSherry each contributed $1,000 to Risch. After the lobbyists made the payments to Rohrabacher, Royce, and Risch, they were reimbursed for the contributions by the Party of Regions, according to filings with the Department of Justice made under the Foreign Agent’s Registration Act.
In taking money originating with the Ukraine government and Party of Regions, Rohrabacher, Royce, and Risch violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). Under FECA, it is federal crime for any candidate to knowingly accept or receive contributions that are directly or indirectly made by non-resident foreign nationals. Foreign nationals include foreign officials, foreign governments, and foreign political parties. Under FECA, “knowingly” means that the candidate “[i]s aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the funds solicited, accepted, or received are likely to be from a foreign national”; or the candidate “[i]s aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to inquire whether the source of the funds solicited, accepted, or received is a foreign national.”
The subject matter of the meetings and the pattern of giving alerted the Congressmen that the payments were dirty. Manafort and six Mercury lobbyists did not suddenly become enamored with the Congressmen. When Rohrabacher, Royce, and Risch saw that they were receiving multiple contributions from Manafort and other lobbyists working for Ukraine close in time to the meetings concerning the Ukraine, they knew that the money was likely given as part of the lobbying campaign for foreign nationals, not out of the private motivations of the lobbyists.
Rohrabacher refused to disgorge the illegal contributions even when it was crystal clear that they came illegally laundered money originating with foreign nationals. Where a candidate learns of that a contribution comes from an illegal source, the candidate must either return it or pay it over to the United States Treasury within 30 days under the FECA. In August of 2016, Manafort was forced to step down as Trump’s campaign chairman amid allegations that he received over $12 million in illegal payments from the Party of Regions. Although Rohrabacher could not have missed the widespread publicity about the reason for Manafort’s departure, he failed to promptly return or disgorge the illegal payments. Around April of 2013, lobbyists with Mercury Public affairs made well publicized filings with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agent’s Registration Act in which they disclosed that they were acting as foreign agents. Notwithstanding these well publicized filings, Rohrabacher still failed to disgorge the illegal contributions. In July of 2017, I filed complaints against Rohrabacher and Royce with the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Federal Elections Commission based on their acceptance of foreign contributions. Although Rohrabacher received the complaints and was notified of the illegal source of the contributions, he still refused disgorge the illegal contributions. In November of 2017, after a Democratic rival demanded that Royce return the money, he donated $9,250 from his campaign fund to the Boys and Girls Club in an effort to comply with the law. Giving the money away to charity doesn’t comport to federal law, which requires it to be returned to the contributor or paid over to the Treasury. When a candidate gives money to charity, he or she exercises control over the gift, gains political good-will the community, and benefits from taking illegal contributions. Rohrabacher was even more blatant in violating the law. Even though Manafort and Gates were indicted for laundering millions of dollars in payments from Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, Rohrabacher has stubbornly refused to disgorge the illegal foreign contributions.
After taking payments from Manafort, Weber, and Kutler in 2013, Rohrabacher came to the defense of Putin and Yanukovych after the invasion of Crimea and ouster of Yanukovych in 2014. Rohrabacher claimed that the pro-wester Ukrainian revolutionaries “ignited” the invasion of Crimea by over-throwing Yanukovych in February 2014. Rohrabacher defended Putin’s invasion, opposed sanctions on the Putin regime, and opposed aid to the pro-western government in Ukraine.
Rohrabacher’s ties to Manafort and Mercury are especially problematical in 2018 because of the direction of the Russia probe. Manfort was indicted for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and other crimes. Weber, Kutler, and other Mercury lobbyists engaged in blatant violations of FARA and are under the scrutiny of Special Counsel Mueller’s office. If Weber, Kutler, or other Mercury lobbyists are indicted, Rohrabacher, Royce, and Risch will fall under the scrutiny of major media companies with national and international audiences. It will not be a pretty picture for them.
The links between Rohrabacher, Royce, Risch, Manafort, and Mercury are casting a pall of corruption over them. Manafort’s indictment states that Manafort laundered more than $18 million in money from Ukraine through offshore accounts. Rohrabacher, Royce, and Risch, more than any other members of Congress, have been linked to these illegal funds. They could well face indictments in the coming months.