A lobbying firm founded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and run by one of her top fundraisers represents the business interests of a Serbian oligarch accused by U.S. and Serbian authorities of widespread corruption, public records show.
Since 2013, the Podesta Group has represented two companies run by Miroslav Miskovic, a Serbian billionaire recently convicted of tax evasion charges stemming from a multi-million-dollar embezzlement scheme.
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Podesta’s work for the companies has received some attention in the Serbian press, but its corporate communications in that country and lobbying efforts in the United States on behalf of Miskovic companies have gone unreported in the United States until now, as the presidential campaign casts scrutiny on the past lobbying careers of those working on behalf of the candidates.
The Podesta Group has hired outside counsel to deal with controversy surrounding its involvement in illicit lobbying activity by two top staffers on Donald Trump’s campaign, both of which have since resigned.
The firm’s Clinton campaign ties have also led to scrutiny of its other lobbying contracts, which include work on behalf of foreign governments accused of widespread corruption and human rights abuses.
Its work with Miskovic could help fuel that narrative. The Serbian billionaire was recently convicted of tax evasion charges stemming from his role in a $40 million embezzlement scheme involving contracts awarded to his companies when the country privatized its highway system.
He was sentenced to five years in prison in June, though he is appealing the verdict.
The case against Miskovic has drawn criticism from anti-corruption advocates who say it is driven by his political opponents. But internal State Department documents show that the U.S. government has long considered Miskovic, a top government official during the tenure of genocidal former president Slobodan Milosevic, to be a malignant force in the country and a threat to U.S. interests there.
The Podesta Group was co-founded in 1998 by Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and his brother Tony, a high-dollar Clinton donor and fundraiser who continues to run the firm. Public records and statements by Miskovic companies reveal that they enlisted the firm’s services in early 2013.
It was around that time that Miskovic ran into serious legal trouble. He was arrested on suspicion of tax evasion and abuses of power in December 2012. The following May, a Serbian court handed down indictments against Miskovic, his son, and nine others allegedly involved in the embezzlement scheme.
According to Serbian journalist Tatjana Tagirov, prosecutors in the case identified a network of companies they alleged were involved. They included Delta Holding, a Miskovic conglomerate working in a host of industries including real estate, retail, and exporting, and Hitomi Financial, a more opaque company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands.
The Podesta Group has represented both of those companies since at least 2013. In a statement that February, Delta said Podesta had been conducting "corporate communications" for the company "for a while." It is not clear whether Delta remains a client.
Hitomi does. The company has paid the Podesta Group $940,000 since March 2013 to lobby Congress, the State Department, and the White House. According to disclosure forms, the firm is "promoting the business of the company, its owners and subsidiaries with partners and governments in the region and the EU and the US."
The team of lobbyists working on the Hitomi account has included Tony Podesta himself, former aides to senators and congressmen, former staffers on congressional committees on Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs, and former officials at NATO, the State Department, and the White House National Security Council.
Last month, Podesta subcontracted some lobbying work for Hitomi to the firm Roberti Global and its eponymous chairman, Democratic consultant and fundraiser Vin Roberti.
Though Miskovic’s web of companies can be difficult to untangle, public records indicate that he plays at managerial role at Hitomi. He was listed as the company’s official representative in paperwork filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2011.
A 2011 report from the Serbian government’s Anti-Corruption Council, established in 2001 after the country’s bloody civil war, identified a company called Hemslade as Delta’s parent company. SEC filings list Hemslade as a wholly owned subsidiary of Hitomi.
According to a New York Times report, Miskovic established and incorporated Hemslade in Cyprus in the early 1990s in order to evade international sanctions on Serbia. Serbian media reported that Hemslade paid at least part of Miskovic’s 12 million euro bail after his 2013 arrest.
The Podesta Group touted the ostensible politicization of Serbia’s judiciary in communications designed to bolster Miskovic’s defense. The firm claimed he was a "scapegoat" for politicians looking "to increase their own popularity" by "fueling populist anger."
"The case points to serious deficiencies in the rule of law in Serbia, and has led to the unjustified arrest of one of the most important business leaders in the country … for politically motivated reasons," the Podesta Group wrote in a letter to Serbian and European Union officials published by Serbian news outlets.
The Podesta Group did not respond to questions about the letter, its Delta communications, or whether its lobbying work for Hitomi has entailed any advocacy on behalf of Miskovic’s legal efforts.
Those efforts received some support from one high-profile congressional Democrat while Podesta was lobbying the U.S. Congress on Hitomi’s behalf.
When Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic visited Washington in September 2015, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) took to the House floor to denounce Miskovic’s prosecution.
"Mr. Miskovic's arrest is indicative of the Serbian justice system's serious need for reform," Van Hollen said. His office did not respond to questions about the speech and whether the Podesta Group had contacted him prior to it.
Van Hollen was correct that international anti-corruption advocates have expressed concern about the integrity of the Miskovic prosecution. But the congressman neglected to mention Miskovic’s stint in the Milosevic regime or the massive windfalls he received from post-war business deals that U.S. authorities described as thoroughly corrupt.
A diplomatic cable sent to the State Department by the U.S. ambassador to Serbia in 2007 recommended that Miskovic be denied entry to the United States due to his involvement in corrupt business practices.
"In his Forbes citation, Miskovic lists his fortune as ‘self-made’ in the banking and insurance industries," noted the cable. "More appropriately, it was made on the backs of the Serbian people as they struggled through crippling sanctions and hyperinflation while he collected on their misery."
"We now have solid [evidence] that Miskovic was the beneficiary of egregious political corruption, which has had a serious adverse effect on U.S. national interests, … namely the stability of democratic institutions and U.S. foreign assistance goals," according to the cable, which was posted online by the group WikiLeaks.
It recommended employing a presidential proclamation designed to combat corruption to preemptively deny Miskovic a U.S. visa "so that he does not derive the further benefit of access to the U.S. from his pillaging of Serbia."