Jaime Harrison Headlined Foreign 'Lobbying School'

S.C. Dem taught art of influence peddling to Turkish execs amid media crackdown

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October 21, 2020

South Carolina Democratic Senate nominee Jaime Harrison was a featured speaker at a 2015 foreign "lobbying school" in Istanbul, Turkey.

The lobbying school, which was organized by the Istanbul Leadership Institute, saw Harrison lecture attendees on topics such as "how to successfully lobby for your industry" and the "five key characteristics of an effective lobbyist," according to a May 2015 press release. The school featured a slew of corporate backers, including Turkish Ticketmaster affiliate Biletix. Former Macedonian minister for foreign investment Gligor Tashkovich and former Coca-Cola government-relations director Nikolaus Tacke also spoke at the conference where attendees received a "certificate with international recognition and prestige."

The conference came amid a government-led crackdown on free press in Turkey. Roughly three months before the lobbying school took place, Istanbul prosecutors launched an investigation into Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet for reporting on an alleged arms deal between Turkey and Syrian jihadist groups. Two of the outlet's journalists were later charged with espionage, leading to protests throughout the country.

Harrison spoke at the conference as a top corporate lobbyist for the now-defunct Podesta Group. The Democrat represented a who's who of corporate giants at the firm, including Walmart, BP, Bank of America, Google, and Boeing. His eight-year tenure at the Podesta Group has come under fire in his run against Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham—an August Graham campaign ad called the Democrat a "high paid liberal lobbyist" who "lobbied for a hedge fund that foreclosed on the homes of Katrina victims."

Harrison has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists in his bid to unseat Graham. At least one such donor—Greenberg Traurig lobbyist Albert Wynn—is a registered foreign agent of Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Hungary. Harrison's Senate exploratory committee was also bankrolled by foreign lobbyists, with donors including registered agents for Ukraine and Iraq, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Prior to Harrison's time at the Podesta Group, the Democrat worked as a top aide to Rep. Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.) from 2003 to 2008. Former Podesta Group lobbyist Cristina Antelo discussed U.S.-Dubai relations with Harrison as a registered foreign agent of the Middle Eastern city in 2008, Foreign Agents Registration Act disclosures show. She went on to donate $2,000 to the Democrat's Senate campaign in 2019.

Other top Harrison campaign backers include prominent Washington, D.C., lobbyist Heather Podesta, whose ex-husband, Tony Podesta, cofounded Podesta Group in 1988. The Podestas helped raise at least $585,000 for Hillary Clinton's 2016 failed presidential bid.

Harrison has received extensive support from top anti-lobbyist progressives, despite his deep ties to the industry. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), who has called campaign contributions by lobbyists "the very definition of bribery," formally endorsed Harrison in July after praising the Democrat in 2019.

"Jaime Harrison will fight hard for the people of South Carolina and take our country forward," Warren said in a May 2019 tweet.

In addition to his campaign coffers, Harrison's time as a corporate lobbyist proved lucrative for his personal finances. The Democrat's 2008 financial disclosure showed between $140,000 and $365,000 in credit card and loan debt. Roughly three years after Harrison left Podesta Group, however, he reported up to $3.45 million in assets, including a joint checking account worth between $250,000 and $500,000.

Harrison defended his work for the Podesta Group during a 2017 Vox interview.

"I won't participate in this blanket assassination of various folks because some members of our party don't agree with what their jobs are," Harrison said. "I can't just have that blanket statement saying, 'Yes, if you're a lobbyist and even if you're a good Democrat, you can't contribute to get Democrats elected.'"

Neither Harrison nor the Istanbul Leadership Institute responded to requests for comment.