America’s friendly neighborhood foreign agent

GOP financier Yuri Vanetik’s FARA documents reveal how U.S. media outlets are unwittingly publishing propaganda from foreign governments, while GOP leadership provides unfettered access to foreign agents and the DOJ refuses to enforce the law

GOP financier turned registered foreign agent Yuri Vanetik may have violated the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) by failing to disclose services he provided to clients in foreign governments and political parties. Vanetik sits on the board of Great America PAC and is the Finance Co-Chair of the NYGOP. During the 2016 election he helped raise over $30 million dollars for the Trump campaign.

A review of FARA filings have found that Vanetik retained two Ukrainian politicians as clients in July 2017. In September of that year, he had private meetings arranged between GOP leadership and Deputy MP Serhiy Rybalka. Rybalka is a member of the Ukrainian Radical Party and currently under investigation for tax evasion, money laundering, and supporting Russian Separatists through violations of the country’s trade blockade. Vanetik did not register as a foreign agent for these activities until October 7, 2017.

Foreign Agent Yuri Vanetik and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

Open source information, including U.S. op-eds and Ukrainian news articles, suggest that Vanetik may have worked with his other Ukrainian client, Agrarian Party Leader Vitaliy Skotsyk, before their July 2017 contract was signed. He also appears to have worked for additional foreign clients that have still not been disclosed to the U.S. government. And, he appears to have obtained publication of news stories favorable to these clients — either through his own contacts or through subcontractors — also without disclosing these activities.

Lying on a government form?

Vanetik’s filing is riddled with inconsistent and inaccurate information. FARA regulations rely on voluntary compliance, and lax DOJ enforcement has enabled unregistered foreign agents to easily fly under the radar. Vanetik’s filing offers a revealing case study on the far-reaching implications of these covert activities and underenforcement.

To the public, and across his five websites, Vanetik bills himself as an entrepreneur, lawyer, philanthropist, financier, and political coalition builder. He is also the founder of two companies — Vanetik International, his financial consulting firm, and Dominion Partners, his real estate investment company. Vanetik describes his political involvement as:

“numerous financial leadership roles in American politics….(including) prominent leadership positions in both state and federal government”.

In his FARA paperwork, however, the California resident is registered under a Wyoming-based company he owns called “Medowood Management LLC”. On the contracts signed with Rybalka and The Agrarian Party, Vanetik lists this company as “Medowood Public Affairs”.

Yuri Vanetik’s consulting contract with The Agrarian Party, dated July 1, 2017.
Yuri Vanetik’s consulting contract with Serhiy Rybalka, dated July 24, 2017.

Both contracts included in Vanetik’s filing indicate a $12,000 retainer deposit due upon signing. His financial disclosure reflects receipt of these $12,000 deposits from both clients. In August 2017, Vanetik hired Potomac International Partners to arrange the meetings that Rybalka held with GOP leadership that September. Potomac also submitted a FARA filing for these services, and both parties disclosed a $25,000 payment Medowood made to Potomac.

But things become less clear from here.

First, there is no receipt of a $25,000 payment from Rybalka disclosed in Vanetik’s filing. If that were the case, it would mean Vanetik paid Potomac $25,000 out of his own pocket for the services provided to his client. This is an unlikely scenario.

Second, there is receipt of a $25,000 “public relations fee” from The Agrarian Party. Vanetik, however, indicated in the same paperwork that he would not prepare or disseminate “informational materials” on behalf of either client. Instead, a firm called Reset PR would provide these services for The Agrarian Party. Yet, there is no disbursement of the $25,000 from Vanetik to Reset PR. There’s also no FARA filing on record for the firm.

Vanetik’s “Financial Information” section of his October 2017 FARA filing.
Vanetik’s “Informational Materials” section of his October 2017 FARA filing.

The implications are significant. The Foreign Agent Registration Act was first enacted in 1938 to help fight the spread of Communist and Nazi propaganda. While amendments in 1966 changed the focus of FARA violations to back-channel foreign money, the laws on “informational materials” are just as critical today as they were during World War II. Any promotional materials sent on behalf of foreign clients to more than one person must be filed with the Justice Department within 48 hours of distribution.

In it to Flynn it

Besides gaining access to U.S. lawmakers, a primary reason foreign principals hire US agents is to obtain favorable press coverage in U.S. media. Failure to disclose this on distributed materials and in a FARA filing is a violation of foreign propaganda laws.

This was recently illustrated in the felony conviction of Michael Flynn. Flynn did not register as a foreign agent and lied to the government about his payments from Turkey. As part of his services, Flynn secured publication of an op-ed favorable to the Turkish government. His article “Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support”, was published in The Hill on Election Day. It now features a detailed “Editor’s Note” at the end.

The Hill “Editorial Note” on Michael Flynn’s Op-Ed.

Like Flynn, Vanetik appears to have also secured favorable news articles for his foreign clients in major U.S. news outlets. In many cases these articles were written by either Vanetik or his clients. In articles written by Vanetik, he is described only as “a Lincoln fellow at the Claremont Institute and serves on the national board of Gen Next”. The Claremont Fellowship is a one-week program that Vanetik participated in nine years ago in 2009.

Deputy MP Serhiy Rybalka in a private meeting with California Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R) in September, 2017.

One such favorable article was written by Chicago-based lobbyist Fred Lebed, and published in the O.C. Register. This is Vanetik’s hometown newspaper and an outlet that has published articles by him in the past. Lebed’s September 2017 article “The casualties of business warfare in Eastern Europe have a human face” is premised on the idea that Deputy MP Rybalka is under persecution in his country by a corrupt Ukrainian government.

A similar article, entitled “A case of abuse feminists should really care about”, was written by L. Todd Wood and published in The Washington Times in October 2017. Wood, who runs a Russian news blog called Tzarism, told reporter Scott Stedman he was not paid to write the article. Yet a relationship between Vanetik and Wood does exists — In the same month, Vanetik published an article on Wood’s blog.

Both articles were published after Rybalka’s contract was signed in July 2017 but were not disclosed in Vanetik’s October 2017 FARA filing.

Additional articles were found written by Vanetik’s other Ukrainian client, Agrarian Party leader Vitaliy Skotsyk. The articles were published in The Washington Examiner in May and the O.C. Register in June, before Skotsyk signed a contract with Vanetik in July. This would indicate that if not Vanetik, someone else was likely pitching the Ukrainian politician to U.S. media outlets. However, there are no other FARA filing on record for the party leader.

This is not the only favorable press secured on Skotsyk’s behalf. In October 2017, Vanetik co-authored an article with Skotsyk entitled “Ukraine Is Not Ready For A Free Market In Agriculture Land.” The article was published on Wood’s aforementioned Tsarizm blog just two days after Vanetik submitted FARA paperwork indicating he would not prepare or disseminate informational materials on Skotsyk’s behalf.

There’s additional evidence that Vanetik was likely working with Skotsyk before July. Skotsyk attended several private GOP events and private meetings with GOP leadership in early 2017 — all of which Vanetik also attended. The first such visit to the U.S. was for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) fundraising dinner in March 2017. This visit occurred just six weeks after Vanetik held a mysterious dinner meeting in New York City with another foreign agent for Ukraine — Paul Manafort.

Skotsyk was also an attendee of an April 2017 trip that Representative Dana Rohrabacher and Yuri Vanetik made to Berlin in support of an anti-Magnitsky documentary. In his May 2017 Washington Examiner article, Skotsyk wrote of his conversation with Rohrabacher on the trip:

“When I spoke with the senior congressman…he agreed with me that only the U.S. can encourage a peaceful solution that would reunite Ukraine”.

In May and June 2017, Skotsyk made two more visits to the U.S. — visiting with GOP leadership, attending conferences, and socializing at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. One of these private Capitol Hill meetings was with soon-to-be-retired California congressman Ed Royce. As the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Royce also met with Vanetik’s client Rybalka later in 2017. The meetings Potomac scheduled for Rybalka were what originally prompted the firm to register as a foreign agent one week prior to Rybalka’s September visit. Vanetik’s filing followed in October 2017.

Vitaliy Skotsyk and Yuri Vanetik in Washington and Berlin, 2017.

Georgia on his mind (but not his FARA filing)

Skotsyk is not the only foreign politician Vanetik appears to have provided services for without registering as a foreign agent. Over the summer of 2016, Vanetik traveled to Georgia and subsequently returned to the U.S. with Paata Burchuladze — a Georgian opera singer turned politician. Burchuladze had previously visited the U.S. and met with Vanetik in April 2016, likely in relation to meetings with the International Republican Institute. That May, Burchuladze formed the “State For The People” political party and declared his run to be the country’s Prime Minister. He lost the race in October 2016.

There is no FARA filing on record for Burchuladze. But based on favorable reporting published about him during this time period, as well as evidence from Vanetik’s Instagram that they travelled across the U.S. meeting lawmakers, it appears Vanetik was working for Burchuladze as an unregistered foreign agent. At this same time in 2016, Vanetik was fundraising for Great America PAC and advising “Putin’s favorite congressman” Dana Rohrabacher on his reelection campaign.

During Burchuladze’s time in America, Newsweek published an article co-authored by Vanetik and Burchuladze entitled “Georgia Needs Western Help To Stave Off Putin”. Two other favorable articles about Burchuladze were published in this timeframe in Newsweek and The Washington Post. Both appear to be the product of public relations efforts.

Paata Burchuladze and Yuri Vanetik Tour America, Summer 2017.

Unless Burchuladze qualified as “exempt” by the State Department, Vanetik’s work to coordinate meetings with lawmakers and secure publication of favorable news articles constitutes a major violation of FARA laws.

Like Flynn and Manafort, Vanetik appears to have been acting as both a GOP operative and an unregistered foreign agent during the 2016 election season.

Allow me to misrepresent myself

There is also evidence that Vanetik may have been working for additional, yet unknown foreign principals. Multiple articles written by Vanetik have been uncovered in which the topics and positions are consistent with pro-Kremlin propaganda messages.

The earliest questionable article by Vanetik was published by the O.C. Register in July 2014, entitled “Sanctions on Russia works in Putin’s favor”. In a second questionable article, published by The Hill in September 2015, Vanetik says of U.S. policy in Ukraine:

“Russia isn’t going to let the Ukrainian government regain control of the breakaway regions. No amount of U.S. arms will defeat the separatists, who are backed by Russian troops and local business leaders…America should rely on its deal making skills — not weapons or sanctions — to end the conflict.”

And in a third questionable article, published by The Daily Beast in July 2016, Yuri argues in favor of authoritarian/nationalist “insurgencies”.

Vanetik and every outlet and author cited in this article were contacted for comment. They were asked whether Vanetik was paid by a foreign principal to write these articles, whether the outlets paid Vanetik, or whether Vanetik paid the outlets for media placements. They were also asked whether any article was the result of a public relations effort by Vanetik or any other party. And, each media outlet was asked to provide their disclosure policies for foreign-paid contributors.

While it appears that most media outlets do not pay or accept payment for op-eds, the issue of disclosures by U.S. opinion writers and public relation firms is of concern. A spokesperson from The Daily Beast, for instance, replied to state, “It is an opinion piece from a Claremont Institute Lincoln Scholar (see bio) and no money was paid for its publication”.

Department of Just….fill out whatever and we’ll file it

In 2014, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), released the results of an investigation into FARA compliance. The study found “a pattern of lax enforcement” of FARA requirements by the DOJ, and that the “office responsible for administering the law is a record-keeping mess.”

Lydia Dennett, who works for POGO, recently published an article illustrating how these enforcement issues enabled Paul Manafort to flout the law for over a decade. On reform efforts, Dennett writes:

“In July, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on oversight of FARA that indicated broad bipartisan support for addressing some of the law’s failings. And throughout the past year, several pieces of legislation to reform it have been introduced, though none have yet passed”.
Image of Yuri Vanetik and Paul Manafort posted on Vanetik’s Instagram on February 7, 2017.

Like Manafort, Vanetik’s business and political entanglements are a case study in how the activities of foreign-paid political operatives — both registered and unregistered — are far more insidious and consequential than presently addressed by government and media.

These agents serve to launder foreign propaganda into major media outlets in what appears to be a mutually-beneficial “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. They also peddle foreign influence among U.S. policy makers in a blurring of lines between business and government. For their part, GOP leadership appears unwilling to limit access to the foreign clients of their top GOP fundraisers — even when those client’s interests conflict with U.S. foreign policy.

In March 2016, a bill titled “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act” was introduced into congress by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). It was included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that former President Barrack Obama signed into law on December 23, 2016. In his announcement of the bill’s passage, Portman stated:

“Our enemies are using foreign propaganda and disinformation against us and our allies, and so far the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel.”

Yet more than a year later, covert foreign influence remain completely unabated in both government and media. The failure of the DOJ to protect the public against these foreign influence operations appears to no longer be a bug — it is a feature of the current administration. When contacted to flag the inaccuracies in Vanetik’s filings and request comment, the DOJ did not respond.

Thank you to the following researchers for their contributions: @mopeng @SaysDana and @@freedomAU21C