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Lobbyists for Putin’s Pipeline Dodge Foreign Agent Laws

The State Department labels Nord Stream 2 executives as 'foreign persons'

Richard Burt / Getty Images
and • June 14, 2021 5:00 am

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Beltway firms lobbying for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline have dodged foreign lobbying laws, even though the Biden administration has affirmed that the company behind the project has engaged in sanctionable activity that serves the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests.

BGR Group and Roberti Global, two prominent Washington, D.C., consulting firms, have taken in nearly $9 million lobbying for Nord Stream 2 AG, the Swiss company building the pipeline. McLarty Inbound has received $2.6 million in fees from five private European companies that have loaned billions to Nord Stream 2. The company is based in Switzerland but wholly owned by Gazprom, a Russian gas company controlled by the Russian government.

Lobbyists for Nord Stream 2 have come under renewed scrutiny after the Biden administration waived sanctions that would have halted construction of the 764-mile pipeline, which will transport gas directly from Russia to Germany. Biden administration officials have defended the controversial waiver, saying they do not want to harm relations with Germany by imposing sanctions to block construction on the pipeline.

Sources tell the Washington Free Beacon that Nord Stream 2’s lobbyists should still have to register as agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

"Lobbying Congress for a Russian geopolitical power grab is pretty much the definition of why FARA was created, so Americans would know who was pushing foreign interests," said a Republican national security veteran who works on the Nord Stream 2 issue. The Republican was baffled that the pro-pipeline lobbyists have escaped FARA registration.

The companies disclose their revenue through the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which is far less stringent than FARA. Lobbyists can be exempt from filing under FARA if their activities involve "bona fide commercial activity" that does not primarily serve a foreign interest.

But the State Department affirmed language in Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (PEESA), a sanctions bill passed by Congress, that said Nord Stream 2 AG and its chief executive are "foreign persons" who engaged in sanctionable activity.

The term is significant for FARA, which requires agents to register for any work they do for foreign governments, companies, or individuals to influence public policy. The State Department has also called the pipeline a "Russian geopolitical project" that threatens European energy security.

"If this is in fact, as [Biden officials] call it, a foreign influence operation, anyone working on behalf of this ought to at least have to register under FARA," said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, an expert at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that supports tougher foreign agent regulations.

"[FARA’s] intended to shine a light on people trying to wield foreign influence over U.S. policy in general," he said.

Under FARA, the firms would be required to disclose not just their consulting revenues, but also provide details of their contacts with government officials, journalists, and other policy influencers.

The pro-pipeline lobbyists have mounted a broad campaign in Washington to oppose sanctions against European companies helping build the pipeline, and to downplay concerns that the pipeline will increase Putin’s power in Europe.

McLarty Inbound’s lobbyists have met with officials from the State Department and National Security Council to make their case against sanctions. The firm’s two lobbyists, Richard Burt and Frances Burwell, have also used their perches at the Atlantic Council, a prominent think tank, to make the case against sanctions. Burt, who serves on the council’s board, has appeared at the think tank’s forums to push the case that the pipeline is in Germany’s commercial interests and not a Russian influence gambit.

BGR Group and Roberti Global have lobbied the House and Senate against bills to impose sanctions on companies that help build the pipeline, according to their LDA disclosures.

BGR lobbyists may have used covert methods to secure support for the pipeline in Washington.

Fox News reported that BGR Group secretly organized a letter signed by more than two dozen Republican national security figures urging Sen. Jim Risch (R., Idaho) to vote for Antony Blinken for secretary of state. BGR’s chief lobbyist for Nord Stream 2, Walker Roberts, signed the letter, which was written by an analyst who works under him.

Two Republicans who signed the letter told the Free Beacon they were unaware that BGR Group was behind the pro-Blinken campaign. One of the Republicans said they feared that BGR used the letter as part of a shadow lobbying campaign to strengthen support for the pipeline.

"It was not advertised as a BGR letter," said one Republican, adding that they would not have signed the letter had they known that the lobbying firm was involved.

BGR, Roberti Global, and McLarty Inbound did not respond to requests for comment. The Justice Department also did not respond to a request for comment.