by Justin Elliott, ProPublica
Last year, as the government of Bahrain violently suppressed an Arab Spring protest movement, an unlikely champion of the small Gulf nation emerged on Capitol Hill in Washington: Democratic Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, the delegate from American Samoa.
Faleomavaega, who has been a non-voting delegate in Congress since 1989 and is now the third-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, typically focuses on more local matters: the tuna industry, Pacific Islands affairs, and securing federal funding for American Samoa.
But this week he is taking a trip to Bahrain, his second in the past year, both paid for by the Bahraini government. It’s part of a year-long friendship the congressman has developed with the tiny Gulf nation.
Last March, just weeks into the crisis, Faleomavaega emerged seemingly out of nowhere — he has no history of commenting on Mideast affairs — to enter a 2,500-word statement into the Congressional Record that closely echoed the Bahraini government’s spin. “Bahrain is under attack,” he said, painting protesters as violent, Iran-backed vandals representing “the worst kind of seditious infiltration from a foreign enemy.” He praised the Crown Prince for supposedly meeting protesters’ demands for democratic reforms.
“Mr. Speaker,” Faleomavaega said. “I have to ask why the demonstrators returned to protesting again, even after all their demands were agreed to.”
Just days before, the government had torn down the iconic Pearl Monument at the center of the protests and Saudi Arabian tanks had rolled into Bahrain to back up the government crackdown.
So why is the delegate from American Samoa so interested in supporting Bahrain? Faleomavaega told ProPublica it’s because “Bahrain has been a key ally and supporter of U.S. security interests in this region of the world.” But there’s another connection: A lobbying firm run by a longtime friend and campaign contributor of Faleomavaega’s is working for the regime’s allies.
The lobbying firm, D.C.-based Policy Impact Communications, is headed by William Nixon, a former Reagan speechwriter and Hill staffer who describes himself as a close personal friend of Faleomavaega. In 2010, Nixon and his wife gave Faleomavaega $4,800, making Policy Impact the congressman’s second largest organizational donor that cycle. (The largest donor was StarKist.) Faleomavaega raises lower sums than most members of Congress, taking in just $65,000 that election and just $15,000 in the current one. Nixon is also the president of the Mormon church’s northern Virginia Mount Vernon Stake, of which Faleomavaega is a member. (American Samoa has one of the highest percentages of Mormon populations in the world, with more than 25 percent of residents belonging to the church, according to official LDS figures.)
In March 2011, a month into the Bahrain crisis and about two weeks before Faleomavaega entered that first statement into the Congressional Record, Policy Impact created the Bahrain American Council. The group is operated out of Policy Impact’s K Street offices. And its board is vice-chaired by a Policy Impact executive. The group says it is focused on promoting U.S.-Bahrain trade and “educating the public about the strategic importance of Bahrain.”
The council also has close ties to Bahrain’s government: It previously listed a top Bahraini official as a member of its advisory board. The council was set up by a group of Bahraini-American businessmen, according to Policy Impact, but details of who is funding the group are not public. Policy Impact’s Nixon said the firm has not registered with the Justice Department as an agent of Bahrain — which is required when a firm is lobbying for a foreign entity — because the Bahrain American Council is run by Americans.
The group’s creation coincided with Bahrain’s hiring of several lobbying and public relations firms to shore up its image in Washington and preserve its key alliance with the U.S. during the crackdown on protests.
Policy Impact’s Nixon told ProPublica that he and Faleomavaega have been “close personal friends [going] back almost before he was elected to Congress” in 1988, but that “there’s never been a quid pro quo on anything I’ve done professionally” with the congressman.
“When you give money to a congressman — which I do, I’ve been in Washington since 1983 — there’s never an expectation of something for that money,” Nixon said. “Most often that money gets in the way of their ability to really assist you because it looks like something nefarious is underway.”
The Bahrain American Council appears to have worked closely with Faleomavaega from early on. It has featured his statements on Bahrain on its website, including after Faleomavaega defended Bahrain during a congressional human rights hearing in May. In Bahrain, both state-run and pro-government media have touted Faleomavaega’s various statements on the crisis (sample headline: “‘Democracy can’t be achieved through violence and blocking roads’, US Congress members said”). Last September, the Bahrain American Council’s president along with an adviser to the king of Bahrain, Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, met with Faleomavaega in his Capitol Hill office.
In October, Faleomavaega along with Reps. Donald Payne, D-N.J., and Lynne Woolsey, D-Calif., traveled to Bahrain on his first trip paid for by Bahrain’s government. On the first night of the trip, the Bahrain American Council hosted a dinner honoring the members of Congress at the five-star Gulf Hotel in the capital, Manama. The Bahrain American Council’s president, Al Khalafalla, also accompanied the delegation in a meeting with the king. And the Bahrain American Council co-sponsored a speech Faleomavaega delivered in Bahrain’s capital Manama in which he again criticized protesters and blamed Iran for stirring up unrest.
The congressional delegation also met with members of opposition party, Wefaq, but a party official later expressed disappointment with the meeting, writing that “the response of the delegation did not meet our expectation as it did not show enough understanding for the legitimate demands for reform.”
Faleomavaega, for his part, said in an email that he was introduced to the Bahrain American Council by Bart Marcois, a political operative who was, for a six-month period beginning last year, a vice president at Policy Impact.
Marcois is a former foreign service officer for the State Department and also former public affairs advisor to the government of Kuwait in Washington. He has also been active in Mormon outreach in the GOP, founding the Republican National Committee’s Advisory Council on LDS Outreach and running Eagle PAC, which was created in 2007 to “to solicit money from Mormons for distribution to Republican congressional candidates,” according to Politico.
Marcois said that he is a longtime friend of both Faleomavaega and Khalafalla, the head of the Bahrain American Council, and he introduced the two of them early last year after the council was created, but before he had joined Policy Impact.
“I’ve known [Faleomavaega] for a long time and you can never predict in what he’s going to get involved in,” Marcois said. “He doesn’t get involved in anything for somebody’s interests.”
Faleomavaega said he became interested in Bahrain because he is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and because the situation involves the alleged influence of Iran — which he believes is also extending to the Pacific Islands region.
“Due to the February 14, 2011 uprisings in Bahrain, which have yet to be resolved, I have a keen interest in our strategic and national security interests in this region,” Faleomavaega said in an email to ProPublica, “especially in view of Iran’s influence in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf region — and whether it is subtle or overt, I am also concern[ed] that Iranian influence is now seemingly visible in South America and in the Pacific Islands.” As evidence, he pointed to Iran’s diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands.
Faleomavaega’s foray into the Bahrain issue isn’t the first time he has advocated for a far-flung foreign country with a connection to Policy Impact.
In April 2009, the government of Kazakhstan, under fire from human-rights groups for its record under longtime dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, hired Policy Impact on a $1.5 million contract to “illustrate Kazakhstan’s progress on human rights” and to establish a Central Asia caucus in Congress.
Over the next few months, Policy Impact officials had four in-person meetings and one phone call with Faleomavaega, who was then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, lobbying records show. In November 2009, Faleomavaega with Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., founded the Congressional Caucus on Central Asia.
Faleomavaega also praised Kazakhstan in a conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and mounted a robust defense of the country before a U.S. government commission that had been critical of Nazarbayev’s human rights record, pointing to Kazakhstan’s decision to give up its nuclear stockpile after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“While human rights groups continue to point fingers at Kazakhstan, I submit that only Kazakhstan had the moral courage to renounce nuclear weapons altogether for the sake of all mankind,” Faleomavaega said, also praising “President Nazarbayev’s leadership and commitment in the service of his people.”
In July 2009, he also traveled to Kazakhstan, telling a government official there, “I continue to argue with my colleagues about human rights in Kazakhstan,” according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. “I tell them you are only 18 years old. It took the United States 150 years to grant voting rights to African-Americans!”
Faleomavaega has denied that Policy Impact’s contract with Kazakhstan has anything to do with his involvement in the country, saying that he feels a special connection to the country because, it, like some islands in the Pacific region, was the site of nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War.
Nixon, the Policy Impact chairman, said that, as in the Bahrain case, “There was never ever a corollary between my relationship to the congressman and our representing Kazakhstan and the congressman’s interest in Kazakhstan.”
Faleomavaega is the second delegate to represent the unincorporated territory of American Samoa (population: 68,000) in the House since the position was created in 1978. Like the other four non-voting delegates in the House — from the District of Columbia and three other island areas — Faleomavaega hires staff with taxpayer money (over $1 million per year), can introduce legislation and, in committee, possesses the same powers and privileges as full members of Congress. But he cannot vote on matters before the full House.
Faleomavaega is set to become just one spot away from the top Democratic position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While he is currently the third-ranking Democrat, next year he will move to the number two slot with the retirement of Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. There is nothing in the House rules that would bar him from chairing the committee someday, though he would have to be nominated by the Democratic caucus.