The news that Wall Street megabank Goldman Sachs may have tried to torpedo a human rights bill pertaining to Russia provoked a reaction from the financial giant, which maintains it never paid a prominent D.C. lobbying firm $100,000 to rally opposition to the legislation.
The Free Beacon reported Thursday that Goldman had retained the services of the D.C.-based lobbying firm Duberstein Group Inc. Lobbying disclosure forms showed the firm lobbied 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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After failing to respond to multiple requests for comment, a senior Goldman Sachs official contacted the Free Beacon to dispute the initial report.
"We have not engaged any firm including the Duberstein group to lobby on that provision," Jake Siewert, head of corporate communications for Goldman Sachs, told the Free Beacon late Thursday.
Siewert, a former Clinton administration official and adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, would not detail the nature of his employer’s relationship with Duberstein, or explain on record why the Magnitsky measure was listed on the firm’s disclosure forms.
Pressed about the relationship, Siewert directed a reporter back to the Duberstein group.
Duberstein President Michael Berman, who declined comment when first approached by the Free Beacon last week, said his firm was "monitoring" the legislation on Goldman’s behalf, but did not take a position for or against the legislation.
"We were monitoring that legislation and did not advocate on it any way," Berman said. "We were monitoring it, checking on what was happening on [U.S. trade relations with Russia] generally."
Federal guidelines governing lobbying activity do not require a firm to specifically list an issue that is only being monitored.
"If a communication is limited to routine information gathering questions and there is not an attempt to influence a covered official, the exception of Section 3(8)(B)(v) for ‘any other similar administrative request’ would normally apply," according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which governs such activity.
Veteran lobbyists questioned Berman’s explanation, explaining that if the firm did not lobby on the measure, there would be no reason to list it on disclosure forms.
"Duberstein registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Duberstein cited the House and Senate versions of the Magnitsky Act as legislation they were registered to lobby on," one veteran D.C. lobbyist told the Free Beacon. "To now claim they were not lobbying is ludicrous. Duberstein should be ashamed and Goldman should demand a refund."
Asked why he initially declined to elaborate on the firm’s involvement with Goldman and the Magnitsky Act, Berman said, "It’s what we do whenever someone calls" to inquire about the firm’s work.
Berman, who claimed that he did not personally work on the matter, further explained that Duberstein employees phoned sources on Capitol Hill to inquire about the measure, but did not lobby on it.
The firm listed its work pertaining to Magnitsky on the disclosure forms In order to be thorough, Berman said.
"There would have been calls on the Hill to find out [about it], but not calls to advocate on it one way or another," Berman maintained.
Asked to name who was called about the legislation, Berman said the firm has "no record on it, quite frankly."
Berman could not say why Goldman Sachs was interested in the Magnitsky act.
"You don’t know specifically what their interest might be because they didn’t ask us to take a position one way or another," Berman said.
While it remains unclear why exactly Goldman would have taken an interest in the human rights bill, the financial giant may be out to protect its Russian clients, experts said.
Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, for instance, 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.," one long-term Russia-watcher based in D.C. told the Free Beacon last week. "It is shameful but not surprising they don’t want to publicly talk about what they are doing."