Goldman Sachs bank appears to have paid a prominent D.C. lobbying firm $100,000 to torpedo a human rights bill that would deny U.S. visas to, and freeze the assets of, Russian citizens involved in human rights abuses, according to lobbying disclosure forms.
The D.C.-based Duberstein Group Inc. was hired by the financial giant to lobby against the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, named after the Russian lawyer who was tortured and killed by Russia officials after discovering a $230 million embezzlement plot.
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The human rights bill is favored by a bi-partisan coalition of lawmakers in both the House and Senate, but has quietly been opposed by the Obama administration as a threat to its policy of "resetting" U.S.-Russia relations. The Russian government has threatened to scuttle cooperation on a range of issues if the Magnitsky bill becomes law.
Congressional sources and Russian human rights activists expressed confusion over Goldman’s apparent opposition to the bill, and chastised the scandal-plagued megabank for kowtowing to the Kremlin.
"It’s immoral what they’re doing," said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a member of Solidarity, Russia’s leading opposition party. "They’re playing into Putin’s blackmail and acting to please the dictator and his wants, which is no way for a responsible financial organization to behave."
Goldman Sachs did not respond to a request for comment about its lobbying activity. Duberstein lobbyist Michael Berman, who is listed on the disclosure form, said that his company "never comments on our work."
Goldman may be trying to protect clients who would be affected by the sanctions, experts said.
Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein met in June with officials of Russian energy giant Gazprom to discuss a possible joint venture.
"Clearly if Goldman hired Duberstein to lobby against U.S. sanctions on torturers and murders, they are trying to protect some of their Russian clients’ ill-gotten gains and preserve their right to travel and bank in the U.S.," said one long-term Russia-watcher based in D.C. "It is shameful but not surprising they don’t want to publicly talk about what they are doing."
Opponents of the Magnitsky bill are "doing it silently because it looks very bad for their reputation," said Kara-Murza. "It’s unimaginable how anyone could be against this."
Other experts were surprised to learn that Goldman—the Obama campaign’s largest Wall Street donor in 2008, and the president’s second largest donor overall, giving more than $1 million to the campaign—was actively lobbying against a measure meant to protect innocent Russians and crack down on money laundering.
"There is something troubling about a business lobbying against Magnitsky," Anna Borshchevskaya, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center, told the Free Beacon. "It raises questions about whether this company cares about promoting good business practices, or whether [it wants] to ingratiate itself to the Kremlin at any cost."
Congressional sources observed that the Obama administration has long lobbied against the language, arguing that it would anger Russia and harm trade relations, though many remain skeptical of those arguments.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill overwhelmingly favor the Magnitsky language and have attached it to a recently passed trade bill that would repeal 1974’s Jackson-Vanik law, which also linked U.S. trade with Russia to human rights.
The House and Senate are set to negotiate that bill’s final language in the coming weeks, and human rights activists have promised to ensure that the bill is not watered down.
The administration hopes to weaken the final bill so that the language is less offensive to Russia, insiders said. The Senate version of the bill broadens the language to include all nations, while the House version singles out Russia.
The U.S. trade relationship with the Kremlin has experienced renewed tension in recent months, following news that Russia was on course to be accepted into the World Trade Organization. In order for American companies to take full advantage of Russia’s membership, the Kremlin must be granted "permanent normal trade relations" with America, a designation unachievable under Jackson-Vanik.
"Everyone knows Russia is one of the worst places in the world to do business because of rampant corruption," said the Atlantic Council’s Borshchevskaya. "The Magnitsky Act isn’t about hurting business; it’s about encouraging transparency, which is at the core of good business and, frankly, good relations."
The bill would prevent Russian officials involved in human rights violations from sending their children to U.S. schools, buying U.S. real estate, and otherwise benefiting from American commerce and markets, experts said.
"We’re talking about murderers and torturers here, and they use the U.S. as a getaway for their shopping" and as a safety deposit box, said a senior Senate aide. "Cowering in the face of Russian threats doesn’t make things better."
While businesses such as Goldman Sachs appear to be most concerned with their short-term business interests, Russian activists such as Kara-Murza said they are on the wrong side of history.
"They’re working for the interests of the current authoritarian regime, and it’s puzzling why they would do that," he said, noting that these anti-Magnitsky corporations are focused solely on "today and tomorrow’s profit."