“Disclosure is for suckers.”

Azerbaijan’s American Media Manipulation

Casey Michel

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The past two years have seen a flurry of analyses on Azerbaijan’s moves to whitewash its dictatorial image for American audiences. Slathered in hydrocarbon profits, the autocratic government of Ilham Aliyev has unleashed spin-doctors, duped reporters, and led one of the most brazen pushes to abuse American lobbying loopholes of any foreign government. All of this, while Azerbaijan’s First Family has taken rank advantage of offshore avenues and shell corporations to bilk unknowing taxpayers.

That said, now that Baku’s coffers have begun to dry — now that the oil price-gouge has led to Azerbaijan boasting the worst-performing currency of 2015 globally — it’d appear the government’s attempts to launder its image are also slowing commensurately. That’s not to say they’re stopping, per se; a recent report from Alex Raufoglu showed that Baku’s still dipping its toes in DC’s lobbying tank. But the days of Gatsby-esque balls and unctuous bribery are, for the time being, over.

Still, there are a couple aspects of Azerbaijan’s attempts to massage its image over the past few years — a couple innovations, if you will — that remain relatively unknown, or at least relatively under-covered. These moves point, once more, to the ethical morass surrounding those who shill for foreign dictatorships. And while they may have stalled with the recent economic crunch, there’s every likelihood that these innovations haven’t been eliminated, but merely remain dormant.

The primary phenomenon that has seen certain, cursory coverage deals with lobbyists on Azerbaijan’s dole penning op-eds on Baku’s greatness — on its stability, on its secularism, on its propensity to provide energy security to a West scouring for non-Russian fuel sources. To be sure, there is, on its face, nothing of necessity wrong with lobbyists pushing op-eds. This remains their prerogative, so long as they can find an acquiescent editor.

However, those lobbying on Azerbaijan’s behalf — and those with ties to Baku’s state energy firm, SOCAR — have built up an impressive track record not simply of pushing their essays on Azerbaijan’s appeal. Rather, they’ve done so without any requisite reveal of their ties to Azerbaijan. Instead of disclosing their financial interests in enhancing Azerbaijan’s reputation, they’ve misled editors and readers alike, posing as disinterested observers instead of those paid to whitewash a country whose civil rights record places it astride Sudan, Iran, and China.

Some of these putatively impartial writers have been outed elsewhere. Former US Rep. Dan Burton, for instance, began serving as the head of the Azerbaijan America Alliance (AAA) in early 2013. The AAA — from which Burton has since resigned, citing a lack of payment — described itself as a “non-partisan, non-profit organization” seeking to “to foster an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect between the people of Azerbaijan and America.” And in his time as AAA’s head, Burton wrote at least three pieces on the wonders of Azerbaijan — all while failing to highlight the fact that he had a pecuniary interest in pushing Baku’s cause.

In two instances — one with the Washington Times and one with Daily CallerThe Washington Post’s Erik Wemple found Burton out. When finally confronted, Burton erupted, calling Wemple a “scandal monger” and saying he had “no desire to talk” to Wemple. (As it is, I attempted to contact Burton and AAA multiple times, but never heard back.)

When finally confronted, Burton erupted, calling Wemple a “scandal monger” and saying he had “no desire to talk” to Wemple.

Last year, I spoke with the Washington Times’s then-editor, John Solomon, who took full responsibility for the oversight, saying the disclaimer on Burton’s relationship was lost through a placement error. Solomon also noted that Burton’s initial Washington Times article — in which Burton wrote that “few places in the world … are as welcoming to Americans as Azerbaijan” — would be updated to reflect Burton’s relationship with Baku. But the piece, describing Burton solely as a former congressman, remains unchanged.

Burton’s actions, however, only scratch the surface. The man with the greatest litany of undisclosed, pro-Azerbaijan op-eds is Jason Katz, the “founder and principal” of The Tool Shed Group, LLC. Katz started Tool Shed in 2008, per his LinkedIn profile, to provide “strategic communications, public relations, [and] public affairs,” among other services. According to Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) records, Tool Shed began providing “consulting services related to business development, strategic communications and public affairs” to Azerbaijan’s Consulate General in 2009, the only foreign principal for whom Tool Shed works.

Soon after his contract with Baku began, Katz began writing a series of articles in Huffington Post on the wonders of Azerbaijan, including praise for Baku’s “democracy” and claims that the country is “a progressive, cosmopolitan, open, secular and Western-oriented society.” (Azerbaijan has never held an election deemed free and fair by the OSCE.) To his credit, Katz noted his relationship with Azerbaijan in every piece, describing himself in his bio as “a senior advisor to the Republic of Azerbaijan.” Nonetheless, that disclosure didn’t prevent Harper’s from designating Katz’s writing as a “PR handout — or blow job, to be less polite — for his firm’s client.”

Soon, though, Katz dropped any pretense of disclosing his relationship with Azerbaijan — and found a handful of outlets that failed to note his relationship with Baku. Since late 2013, Katz has penned at least nine op-eds — including four with Roll Call and three with The Hill — that have pushed Azerbaijani interests. His first with The Hill focused on the apparent strength of Azerbaijani “democracy,” while another managed to stake that the “U.S. can learn much from a nation like Azerbaijan.” He also wrote a piece in National Review in early 2014, ostensibly about the death of scholar Alexandros Petersen — a man whom I knew, and whose death I mourned — that ended up as a screed against Armenia, Azerbaijan’s geopolitical rival, equating the Armenian government with the Taliban.

In all nine pieces — in every single instance of buffing Azerbaijan’s image for an English-speaking audience — Katz failed to point out the fact that Azerbaijan stands as Tool Shed’s client.

As it is, I obtained one of Katz’s 2014 communiques to Capitol Weekly Editor John Howard, when Katz reached out to about a potential piece on the California legislature’s commentary on Armenia. “I am writing, as I would like to submit to you the attached op-ed,” Katz wrote. “I wrote it and it concerns the Legislatures recent (and really odd) foray into U.S. foreign affairs [sic].” Katz identifies himself as only a member of Tool Shed — and says nothing about his relationship with Azerbaijan.

Capitol Weekly declined the piece — but it wasn’t until I contacted the other outlets that corrections and clarifications, months later, arose. For his National Review piece, Katz’s bio now reads:

The Hill, meanwhile, now carries a trio of corrections about Katz, noting specifically the lack of disclosure around Katz’s relationship:

When contacted, Editor-in-Chief Bob Cusack said via email, “Jason Katz didn’t identify himself as representing Azerbaijan. … We conduct independent research on the people who submit pieces to us. However, because we receive hundreds of op-ed submissions per month, the vetting process is thorough though not exhaustive.” Still, for months, readers would have assumed Katz was yet another distant, unbiased writer, rather than someone on Azerbaijan’s dime. Katz’s pieces with Roll Call, meanwhile, remain unchanged, and none of the editors contacted were willing to comment on-the-record. And this is all without discussing the impact of these op-eds, posited as neutral observations, leaking back into the Azerbaijani press, improving the domestic image of the country’s dictatorship.

But Katz’s involvement with media manipulation doesn’t end with him. In mid-2014, a woman named Mallory Moss began penning a series of op-eds mirroring Katz’s language. Unlike Katz, Moss managed to land a piece in Capitol Weekly, as well as an additional pair in The Hill. All three pieces focused on Armenian fault during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed South Caucasus region. On its face, Moss maintains no discernible interest in the region, presenting her nursing background as sufficient credential for discussing post-Soviet territorial divides. One piece in The Hill further identifies Moss as a “noted commentator and writer on humans and humanity,” whatever that means.

One piece in The Hill further identifies Moss as a “noted commentator and writer on humans and humanity,” whatever that means.

However, a series of social media searches and domain backtracking reveals a pair of conspicuous facts. According to Katz’s Facebook, he is married to a woman named Mallory Moss. Additionally, a search through URL registries reveals that, since 2013, a “Mallory Moss” pushed Azerbaijan-related material online, including registering BakuWoman.com, which has since been re-registered in Katz’s name. The registrant organization listed for Moss was The Tool Shed Group.

According to the Department of Justice, there appears no record of Moss’s name within any FARA registration. Likewise, unlike Katz, none of Moss’s op-eds have been entered into the FARA database. “It certainly sounds as if Mrs. Moss should have filled out a Short Form [FARA] Registration as an employee of or consultant to Tool Shed,” one lawyer familiar with FARA protocol told me. “In terms of materials, the op-eds should have been included in Tool Shed’s regular filings.”

When I contacted Moss, she noted that she “write[s] on various issues,” and refused to respond to any questions on her relationship with Tool Shed and Katz. Likewise, Katz refused to answer any questions pertaining to his relationship with Moss, or about Moss’s relationship with Tool Shed. When I informed Katz that his Facebook showed that he was married to Moss, he proceeded to block me on Facebook.

As it is, Moss’s pieces in The Hill now include an editor’s note noting her lack of disclosure:

When contacted, a representative from The Hill confirmed that the “firm” in question was Tool Shed.

To be fair, Burton, Katz, and Moss aren’t the first individuals tied to pushing Azerbaijani interests who now have corrections appended to their op-eds. Brenda Shaffer, for instance, earned both an editor’s note/clarification from The Washington Post and The New York Times about her relationship with SOCAR:

NYT:

Washington Post:

All told, these op-eds — this media manipulation — is but one cog in the machine of Azerbaijan’s attempts to launder its image for Western audiences, Western politicos, and Western investors. But while Baku’s been forced to turn inward over the past twelve months to deal with domestic discontent, those who’d helped Azerbaijan spin its dictatorship have pushed on, seemingly undeterred, ethically or otherwise, by their affiliation and track record in whitewashing the Caspian kleptocracy.

For instance, Katz has since begun heaving pro-Macedonia pieces, writing amidst a stable of authors who have pushed similar op-eds in places like — as with Azerbaijan— The Hill and The Daily Caller. As Balkan Insight described, Katz is a “public relations professional” with “no previous profile on Balkan affairs[.]” When contacted by reporters, “Katz replied that his newfound interest stemmed from a ‘geopolitical/US foreign policy standpoint.’”

As it is, these failures to disclose ties — all to help soften the image of a government with dozens of political prisoners—seem to carry little professional repercussion. And that may have less to do with their personal prowess as PR specialists, and more from the fact that, in Washington, those who’d push Baku’s interests often maintain close ties with those hoping to enter the White House. For instance, Tony Podesta, one of the leading bundlers for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, is also the founder of one of the lead organizations linked to remarkably questionable activities on Azerbaijan’s behalf. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has pushed commercial deals with those close to Aliyev, and his campaign’s new national political director ran DCI Group, another lobbying outfit tasked with helping Azerbaijan. Even those who’d flamed out in the 2016 race had no compunction about working with those who’d further Azerbaijan’s aims. To wit, consultant Liz Mair inked a deal in 2014 with Azerbaijan to “impact various U.S. government officials, as well as the U.S. general public” — adding to her body of prior work with former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

To be sure, masquerading as an unbiased observer — all while on a dictatorship’s dole — is not solely an Azerbaijani phenomenon; this malfeasance is why FARA was created in the first place, after all. But Azerbaijan’s track record of recruiting those who’d forego ethical disclosures on American op-ed pages has seemingly surpassed all others over the past few years, at least within the realm of post-Soviet kleptocracies. And unless editors remain vigilant — or readers are willing to contact the editors outright — there’s little reason to think this push, while momentarily on pause, won’t pick up as soon as oil begins its eventual climb back.

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Casey Michel

Kleptocracy, mainly | Bylines at Foreign Affairs, POLITICO, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, etc. | @KleptocracyIntv, @HarrimanInst, @PeaceCorps