Norm Coleman might be vaguely familiar to you as a former senator from Minnesota and the guy whom Al Franken narrowly defeated in 2008, but he has since settled into a nice life behind the scenes in Washington. He chairs the Republican Jewish Coalition, and it was in that role that he joined Paul Ryan this month to (successfully) ask Sheldon Adelson for a $30 million donation to the Congressional Leadership Fund. Like many former politicians, he’s also a lobbyist. One of his longest-term clients is the government of Saudi Arabia, which he has represented on and off since 2014, according to mandatory disclosures he has filed with the Department of Justice.
Coleman’s last registration to lobby for Saudi Arabia was posted on November 3, 2017, and has been active since. His firm’s last registration to lobby for Saudi Arabia was posted in March. Informational materials disclosed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show Coleman emailing a Senate foreign relations staffer in July, informing them that the UK government had won a court case allowing them to continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which a campaign group had sought to stop on the grounds that the country is violating international humanitarian law in Yemen. (The case is now being appealed.) Another document shows emails Coleman sent to Senate offices in November with a statement from the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., decrying a missile launch by Houthi rebels on Riyadh Airport, which the statement described as “direct military aggression from Iran.”
And yet! Were you to read The Hill last Friday, and stumble across an op-ed from Coleman applauding Donald Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal, you would not have learned that Coleman has represented the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for five years. (Saudi Arabia is one of Iran’s biggest enemies, and will benefit not just politically but also financially from the collapse of the deal.)
That is, until today, after Splinter emailed The Hill for comment. The original disclosure, available at the Internet Archive, read:
No mention of Saudi Arabia. Since Splinter asked the Hill about this, though, the disclosure has been updated:
There’s no acknowledgement that the disclosure has been altered, but a spokesperson for The Hill responded to Splinter’s email with this statement: “It is The Hill’s policy to identify writers’ potential conflicts. The editor missed it in this instance, and Mr. Coleman’s bio has been changed accordingly.”
The Hill has a history of this sort of slip-up. On Election Day in 2016, the paper ran an op-ed by Michael Flynn praising Turkey and its president, without disclosing that Flynn was a paid agent of the Turkish government. Whoops! In general, the site’s opinion section acts as a dumping ground for influence-peddling op-eds in Washington. On almost any issue, you can find several Hill op-eds supporting the case of big money interests: net neutrality (author: a fellow at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center); taxes (author: an ALEC executive); the minimum wage (author: a former Koch and ALEC employee); single payer (author: fellow at a Koch-aligned group). For well-funded non-profits—often with innocuous-sounding names and a web of rich donors with an agenda to push—placing op-eds in outlets like the Hill is a routine part of influence campaigns in DC.
It’s a cottage industry. Funnily enough, promoting Saudi interests without disclosing your relationship to the Saudi government is too: In 2016, the Washington Post columnist Ed Rogers attacked the Iran deal without disclosing that he was a paid agent of Saudi Arabia (though he hadn’t disclosed that to the U.S. government at the time, either). Rogers has done the exact same thing since, too.
One op-ed isn’t likely to swing U.S. policy in favor of Saudi Arabia, but it does leave the question of why the Hill is willing to allow itself to be used by lobbyists to promote their clients’ interests without disclosure.
Correction: This blog initially said that Coleman and Paul Ryan secured $30 million for the House Majority PAC. In fact, the money was for the Congressional Leadership Fund, which raises money for House Republicans; the House Majority PAC is the CLF’s Democratic equivalent.