India’s prime minister met with the president of a leading liberal think tank during a swing through Washington this week after his government enlisted the services of a lobbying and public relations firm founded by that think tank’s former chairman.
Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, was one of ten Indian-American leaders to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the weekend during his first official visit to the United States.
CAP chairman John Podesta is now an adviser to President Barack Obama on climate and energy policy, but the firm that bears his name is currently representing the interests of the Indian government in Washington.
The Podesta Group, founded by John and his brother Tony, first inked a contract with the Indian embassy in Washington in 2010, long after John left the firm. His brother remains the chairman of the Podesta Group.
According to its most recent Foreign Agent Registration Act filing, the embassy will pay the firm $350,000 between July 2014 and July 2015 to provide "strategic counsel, tactical planning, and public relations assistance on policy matters before the U.S. Government, the U.S. Congress, and select state governments, as well as academic institutions and think-tanks."
CAP spokeswoman Daniella Leger said in an email that the firm was not involved in facilitating the meeting. However, previous FARA filings show that it has arranged meetings and corresponded on multiple occasions with CAP staffers on behalf of the Indian embassy.
The most recent meeting was in April, when Podesta Group representatives met with CAP senior fellow Rudy deLeon, an expert in defense policy, to discuss "US-India relations."
Podesta Group staffers have also arranged meetings with then-senior fellow Andrew Light, who worked on energy and environmental policy, on behalf of the embassy, and corresponded with at least four other CAP staffers.
Overlap between clients of the Podesta Group and donors to the Center for Amercian Progress has led to speculation that the think tank served as an arm of John Podesta’s extensive influence-peddling operation.
"There are innumerable ways that money can be used to help shape policy and one of those is supporting a nonprofit connected to the politician or political operative," Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told the Washington Free Beacon in December.
"Gifts from moneyed interests to politicians’ pet charities always merit added scrutiny and concern, but the same concerns apply to political operatives and advisers," Krumholz said. "They wield influence, too."
The Free Beacon reported at the time that at least twelve Podesta Group clients were also CAP donors.
The think tank has not released a full list of its donors, making it impossible to know whether the Indian government has supported any of its activities. Tanden did not respond to a request for comment.
Foreign funding for American think tanks has become a source of controversy after a New York Times story detailed extensive gifts by foreign governments to U.S. policy organizations.
Such groups are not required to register with the Justice Department as foreign agents despite their abilities to shape U.S. policy, potentially at the behest of benefactors in foreign governments.
CAP staffers Aarthi Gunasekaran and Vikram Singh on Monday published a column on the occasion of Modi’s visit recommending areas of policy cooperation with India. Some of the suggested policies dovetail with the interests of CAP donors that are also Podesta Group clients.
For example, the column lauded a Defense Department program that has helped facilitate the sale of Lockheed Martin C-130J aircraft to India. Lockheed is a Podesta group client that has also donated to CAP.
The column called for the renewal of the New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship, a 2005 treaty that strengthened defense ties between the two nations. "When it was signed, the United States and India had almost no defense relationship, but now the United States is India’s largest defense supplier," the column noted.
For defense contractors Lockheed, GE Aviation, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman—all of which donated to CAP while also employing the Podesta Group—an extension of that relationship could be a lucrative policy goal.