By Jonathan Easley and John Solomon - 07-14-17 15:58 PM EDT
The Russian lobbying effort that pierced President Donald Trump's inner circle and touched Democratic and Republican lawmakers was directly connected to three Moscow businessmen, according to lobbying registration records and interviews.
The lobbying campaign was led by Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin and his lobbying partner Robert Arakelian, but also involved a former Democratic congressman and a former Export-Import Bank official, lobbying disclosure forms show.
Akhmetshin and Arakelian filed a series of lobbying disclosure reports in 2016 and 2017 detailing their work for a group called The Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation. They reported lobbying on adoption issues related to the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law reviled by Vladimir Putin that sanctioned Russia for human rights abuses in the death of a Russian whistleblower named Sergei Magnitsky.
The reports indicated at least $50,000 was spent on the group's lobbying effort and that three Russian businessmen - Denis Katsyv, Mikhail Ponomarev and Albert Nasibulin of Moscow - had a direct interest in the outcome of the lobbying results.
"Mikhail Ponomarev, Albert Nasibulin and Denis Katsyv support policies that would reinstate the ability for U.S. citizens to adopt Russian children," several of the lobbying reports state in a section requesting the disclosure of foreign entities that were interested or directed the lobbying campaign.
The report indicated the Russian businessmen, however, did not contribute money to the lobbying effort or own a piece of the lobbying group Akhmetshin registered.
Katsyv is most known in the West of the three Moscow businessmen because he owned a Cyprus-based company, Prevezon Group, that in 2013 was pursued by the U.S. Justice Department for a multimillion dollar civil asset forfeiture proceeding tied to the Magnitsky case. His company recently settled the civil proceeding with the U.S. government for about $6 million.
In late 2015, Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer at the center of controversy for meeting with Donald Trump Jr., received a special waiver to come to the U.S. to represent Prevezon in the case.
One congressional aide with knowledge of the effort described the anti-Magnitsky push as "extremely expensive, well-resourced and aggressive."
"It didn't succeed but it was far more sophisticated and tenacious than their prior efforts," the source said.
Lawmakers and congressional staff said they sometimes were approached out of the blue by lobbyists like Akhmetshin in congressional hallways or offices for a pitch on why the Magnitsky Act should be repealed.
Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, was one of the targets.
Those close to Meeks say the congressman was solidly supportive of the Magnitsky Act and had long intended to back the effort. Meeks met frequently with Bill Browder, the investment fund manager who was close with Magnitsky and is furious over the attempts to sink the measure.
But former Congressman Ron Dellums, a California Democrat, and Akhmetshin sought meetings with Meeks nonetheless. The efforts were facilitated by Paul Behrends, a staffer for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), sources said.
After several unsuccessful attempts to get an audience with Meeks, Dellums and Akhmetshin buttonholed him in the hallways of Congress to give their anti-Magnitsky pitch.
This was typical of the approach, Capitol Hill staffers say. Stories of the two hanging around to chase lawmakers circulated among chiefs of staff and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"They were stalking the halls to find folks," one Capitol Hill staffer said. "They would hang around the hallways for hours."
"It was desperate," said another staffer. "If they couldn't get meetings they'd walk into people's offices unannounced or tag folks in the hallway or around the floor."
In addition to Meeks, the lobbyist duo also tried to get meetings with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), but never cornered him. They also sought out Reps. French Hill (R-Ark.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who introduced the 2012 bill. Representatives for Hill and McGovern said they did not meet with with Dellums or Akhmetshin.
All of the congressmen who were targeted by the lobbyists voted in favor of the Magnitsky Act.
The lobbying forms did not provide more detail about the other two Russian businessmen, but they do list a handful of American officials who also registered to support The Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation in its lobbying effort.
Among them were Dellums and former Export-Import Bank General Counsel Howard Schweitzer. Dellums reported less than $5,000 in lobbying income, while Schweitzer's firm reported about $70,000 in lobbying income from the campaign, the reports state.
Dellums' lobbying report disclosed he understood the lobbying work was connected to the three Russian businessmen, the records show.
Akhmetshin acknowledged to The Associated Press on Friday that he joined Veselnitskaya at a meeting in June 2016 with Trump Jr., President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort at Trump Tower.
Those who reported getting contacted by the lobbying effort, including Trump Jr., said it focused predominantly on repealing the Magnitsky Act against Russia and opening the door for Putin to restore Russian adoptions for American parents.
The two issues were inextricably linked since the U.S. law was passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress in 2012 and signed by former President Obama.
The lobbying effort also included an anti-Magnitsky movie at the Newseum.
Top staffers for Engel and Rohrabacher, representing opposing sides of the issue, attended the viewing, as did two State Department employees.
The screening was emceed by legendary journalist Seymour Hersh. Hersh told The Hill that he did not accept any money for the appearance.
Hersh said he agreed to participate because the adoption issue is important to him.
"The only motive I had was to work this adoption stuff out and end this impasse," he said. "People are forgetting it was very tragic for a lot of people."
He said he has known Akhmetshin for years and pushed back at the characterization of him in the press.
"Rinat is not a gangster or a mobster and he's not a spy," Hersh said. "He was on a military base at one point but these characterizations of him are getting out of control."