'Pretty Gross': How a Network of Retired Lawmakers Boosts CCP Influence in Washington

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May 6, 2022

As Beltway institutions cut ties with Chinese Communist Party front groups, a group of former congressmen has kept a close relationship with a think tank that oversees Beijing’s foreign influence efforts.

The Association of Former Members of Congress, a networking hub for former lawmakers, has hosted multiple events since 2020 for the China-United States Exchange Foundation, the CCP’s leading foreign influence think tank. The Exchange Foundation sponsors the association’s annual awards gala, which will be held next month, and it has worked hand-in-glove with the Exchange Foundation’s lobbyist to host policy events where pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have been blamed on "foreign forces" and the United States has been accused of directing "vitriol" toward China.

"It’s really murky and pretty gross," said Dylan Hedtler–Gaudette, government affairs manager at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan transparency group. Hedtler-Gaudette says the overlapping ties between Capitol Counsel, the Exchange Foundation, and the Association of Former Members of Congress constitute a "shadow lobbying operation."

The arrangement shows the extent of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda operation in the United States. It also highlights a type of influence peddling prevalent in Washington, where consulting firms work with think tanks and nonprofit organizations on behalf of corporate clients and foreign entities, often without disclosing the connections.

Since launching in 2008, the Exchange Foundation has donated heavily to American universities, think tanks, and nonprofit organizations to access their spheres of influence. The group has come under scrutiny in recent years over its involvement in the Chinese Communist Party’s "united front" system, which Beijing uses to wield influence overseas. CIA director William Burns said he cut ties with the Exchange Foundation when he served as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace because of the group’s aggressive efforts to influence American views toward China.

The Association of Former Members of Congress, which boasts ties to more than 200 sitting members of Congress and senior staffers, is one of the few Beltway organizations that maintains a relationship with the Exchange Foundation. The group has hosted or taken part in at least eight policy discussions with the Exchange Foundation since 2020, according to a review by the Washington Free Beacon.

For John Dotson, a China-watcher at the Global Taiwan Institute, the Exchange Foundation has displayed a "continued pattern" of lobbying to access Beltway power centers. The think tank once worked with Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta and sponsored research at the think tank his brother John founded, the Center for American Progress. Dotson has written before about the Exchange Foundation’s "lobby laundering," including its work with the Podesta Group and Capitol Counsel.

Founded by Democratic lobbyist John Raffaelli, Capitol Counsel has represented the Exchange Foundation since 2014. Capitol Counsel’s filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show it agreed to facilitate "coalition building" with the Association of Former Members of Congress on behalf of the Exchange Foundation. Capitol Counsel lobbyist Martin Gold has hosted policy discussions at the association on behalf of the Exchange Foundation about a controversial national security law in Hong Kong, the state of U.S.-Chinese economic relations in the wake of COVID-19, and a discussion of the summit between President Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Capitol Counsel is connected directly to the association through former congressman Charles Boustany (R., La.), a partner at Capitol Counsel and the association’s president. Boustany has led several China policy discussions for the association, including two events sponsored this year by the Exchange Foundation. Boustany took part in a virtual event last month to mark the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s trip to China. He expressed support for China’s position on Taiwan and was critical of Trump-era trade restrictions on China. Boustany has interviewed lawmakers at other Association of Former Members of Congress events, highlighting the group’s continued access to Capitol Hill.

The overlapping financial interests between Capitol Counsel, the Exchange Foundation, and the Association of Former Members of Congress are not always made clear at events. Capitol Counsel discloses in its filings with the Justice Department that it arranges policy discussions on behalf of the Exchange Foundation, but the lobbying firm does not acknowledge they were hosted by the Association of Former Members of Congress. The Exchange Foundation’s affiliation with the Chinese government is also not disclosed at the association’s panel discussions.

The lack of disclosure was on display during a July 27, 2020, panel discussion on a national security law passed in Hong Kong. Gold, the Capitol Counsel lobbyist, interviewed three former senators and Allan Zeman, a Hong Kong-based businessman. Zeman echoed unfounded claims from Chinese officials and state-run media outlets that "foreign forces" were behind demonstrations against the national security law. While Gold acknowledged his own work with the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, he did not disclose that Zeman is a counselor for the think tank.

The Exchange Foundation pays Capitol Counsel $180,000 a year for its consulting services, according to the firm’s foreign agent disclosures. The think tank also pays the Association of Former Members of Congress to sponsor its annual gala, though it is unclear how much. Capitol Counsel and the Association of Former Members of Congress did not respond to requests for comment.

The lack of disclosures about the financial relationship leaves consumers of the association's events in the dark about who is funding the events, said Hedtler-Gaudette of the Project on Government Oversight.

"It’s not good that all these former members of Congress are involved in this way, but aren’t captured in a disclosure framework," Hedtler-Gaudette told the Free Beacon.