The South Sudanese government turned to Washington, D.C., PR firms to bolster its image amid widespread conflict, poverty and human rights abuses.
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By almost any objective measure, the fledgling nation of South Sudan is an unmitigated disaster — reeling from a violent power struggle that’s left an estimated 50,000 people dead just in the past three years. Last week, as the country turned five, renewed factional violence reportedly killed as many as 270 more and displaced thousands before leaders agreed to a ceasefire on Monday.
While opposition forces are responsible for some of the historical bloodshed, South Sudanese government forces “bore the greatest responsibility” for human rights violations in 2015, according to a United Nations report. Those government forces have raped and murdered civilians, recruited child soldiers and looted civilian property.
Meanwhile, more than 5 million people in South Sudan are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the World Food Programme’s estimate, and many of them face “unprecedented levels of food insecurity,” say U.N. agencies. One in five South Sudanese have fled their homes, according to international development organization Mercy Corps.
But while the South Sudanese government largely claims it doesn’t have enough money to fix these problems, the struggling government was able to spend $2.1 million on Washington, D.C., lobbying and public relations firms from 2014 through the end of 2015 — $2.1 million to buff up its image, keep U.S. aid flowing and stave off harsher U.S.-backed sanctions in response to its atrocities.
That cash has gone to folks like former Republican U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, as well as R&R Partners, the firm famous for the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” campaign. And a hunk of South Sudan’s money went to lobbying giant Podesta Group, led by high-profile Democratic Party fundraiser Tony Podesta.
Podesta’s brother, John Podesta, is Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, and also led President Obama’s transition team and served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Among the Podesta operatives who worked on the South Sudan account: former high-level officials of Bill Clinton’s Defense Department and Hillary Clinton’s State Department.
It’s all perfectly legal—or almost all of it, anyway. There are questions about whether everyone who flakked for South Sudan complied with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires foreign governments and other foreign actors to detail how they’re attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy and laws.
Beyond that, though, a variety of critics contend that South Sudan’s relationships with U.S. power brokers are just the latest distasteful symptom of how Washington really functions. As the Center for Public Integrity has previously reported, countries with the worst human rights records have increasingly sought help from Washington lobbyists and PR professionals. In fact, South Sudan was a relatively small player among a boatload of troubled nations that together inked more than $168 million worth of U.S. lobbying and PR contracts from 2010 to 2015.
Regardless of human rights abuses, if you have the cash, it’s likely there’s a firm happy to smooth the rough edges and represent your interests in the hallways of the State Department or corridors of Capitol Hill. For the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless or even the tortured or families of the dead, scoring meetings with lawmakers or airing grievances in the nation’s capital is a far more daunting assignment.
A troubled history
The history of South Sudan, though short, is both complex and troubling.
In 1983, when Sudan was still one nation, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army began fighting the Khartoum-based Sudanese government over control of resources and the marginalization of some ethnic groups.
After the war ended in 2005, the south gained autonomy. Then — following Sudan People’s Liberation Movement leader Salva Kiir Mayardit’s election as president — South Sudan won full independence in 2011. A relatively peaceful period ensued. But in December 2013, President Kiir accused Vice President Riek Machar, a former commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, of attempting a coup and fired him and Kiir’s whole cabinet, sparking brutal combat between the two rivals’ loyalists.
Divisions split around ethnicities, pitting the Nuer groups, like those loyal to Machar, against Dinkas, like Kiir and his forces. In an August 2015 peace agreement, both sides agreed to a unified government and end to warfare, but promises were repeatedly broken. Most recently, in April, Vice President Machar made a much-delayed return to the capital of Juba, a provision of the peace deal, but he has been living in a makeshift camp with armed soldiers and a supply of weapons. Kiir and Machar met to discuss further implementation of the peace agreement last month, but the situation remains volatile.
Against that backdrop, Washington has struggled to figure just what to do in regard to the situation in South Sudan.
The U.S. has spent $1.6 billion since the war began in December 2013 on humanitarian aid for the South Sudanese. In 2014, President Barack Obama and the Treasury Department authorized modest, targeted sanctions to freeze assets and halt travel of two low-level military commanders from either side of the conflict. In July 2015, the U.N. Security Council approved the addition of six individuals to its sanctions list in order to freeze assets and ban travel. The United States then added two of the six individuals to its sanctions list.
But various advocacy groups and some in Congress believe that far more forceful U.S. action is required, especially against Kiir and the sitting government; they have repeatedly cited tougher sanctions and an arms embargo as potential tools to address the conflict in South Sudan.
Such sanctions, if strictly enforced, could create leverage over warring parties and halt the efforts of military commanders who are “perpetuating the conflict,” said Ian Schwab, director of advocacy and impact strategy for the Enough Project. The nonprofit conducts field research and makes policy recommendations on global issues relating to genocide and mass atrocities.
In a recent op-ed, U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., and Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., acknowledge that an arms embargo would be belated but they encourage it as a way to “blunt the fighting in the medium term and put warring parties on notice that they cannot continue ignoring the peace agreement.”
U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney, R-Fla., sponsored legislation on South Sudan last July to bring attention to the conflict and support actions like an arms embargo or expanded sanctions on warring parties. The legislation hasn’t moved since it was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations in August 2015.
At an appropriations hearing in February, Rooney asked Secretary of State John Kerry about U.S. plans with the international community to impose such an arms embargo and tougher sanctions on “individuals who’ve committed violations of international humanitarian and human rights law” in South Sudan.
“I don’t think South Sudan has a better friend than the United States,” Kerry responded, adding that if the nation’s leaders continue to fail on delivering its commitments in the peace agreement, “the international community is absolutely prepared” for individual sanctions.
But the administration has not added anyone to the list of sanctions since July 2015, nor has it pursued an arms embargo. A State Department spokesman, in an e-mailed response to questions, says the administration remains “committed to seeing the peace agreement implemented” fully and has not hesitated to criticize the actors that hinder it.
The spokesman added that the administration’s policy has not been influenced by lobbyists and has “always been driven by the desire to catalyze progress in the peace process.” Since the administration’s sanctions last year, “we believe the threat of further action was key” in advancing the peace process, the email said.
But some remain exasperated. Shortly after Machar’s return to Juba, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., noted the United States’ hesitation in adopting measures to help stop the war, calling the idea of an arms embargo “an empty threat” in a hearing of that House Foreign Affairs Africa subcommittee.
The policy and politics remain muddled, and it is impossible to directly attribute this lack of further action against the South Sudan government to the lobbying and PR campaign. But those advocating a more vigorous stance contend that the lobbying and PR created a misleading narrative that contributes to the current paralysis.
Human rights advocates note their messages are often drowned out by those of well-funded lobbyists.
“We don’t have enough resources and capacity to deflect against that sort of firepower, so we are effectively muzzled,” said Maran Turner, the head of human rights organization Freedom Now. “That means that the messages that are coming from [PR firms] are what are getting to the various places in the U.S. government.”
Those efforts by lobbyists and PR firms were setbacks for groups working to encourage action by Congress, added an expert on South Sudan’s humanitarian situation who asked not to be named for security reasons.
“They’re spreading completely false information and undermining the efforts of a united international community that’s seeking to bring peace to a country that’s had more years of conflict than of peace since it was founded,” the expert said of the lobbyists.
Close to home
For Mayom Bol Achuk, it’s all a little more personal.
He recently held an outdated gold iPhone 3 as he recounted the details of his life — bearing witness to a long-ago civil war in his home country, spending a decade in a refugee camp as a Sudanese “Lost Boy” and later being chosen for resettlement in the United States, where he attended college and graduate school.
His friends have joked with him about the old phone, he says, but he won’t give it up — because it holds photographic proof of violent atrocities he witnessed in Sudan and helped save his life after he returned there.
That was in the summer of 2012, when Achuk went back to South Sudan to work for a USAID-funded agricultural program, in part to confront the memories of his past that haunted him “I feel like the only way to get rid of these bad memories,” he said, “is to go back home and get reconnected with my people and the land.”
But just a year-and-a-half later, the bad old memories were replaced by bad new ones, as he found himself again in the middle of a war. After that old iPhone documented the bodies of 32 people killed for being suspected rebels, he knew it was time to go. After a few panicked days and nights, the iPhone helped connect him with a U.N. evacuation flight out of South Sudan.
These days, from suburban Silver Spring, Maryland, Achuk, 35, uses the phone in a battle that is far safer, but sometimes almost as aggravating. He’s tried to connect with congressional offices and advocates in Washington to educate them about conflict in his home country, as part of a loose network of former Lost Boys.
But it’s been frustrating, he says. A narrative spread that portrayed South Sudan — in the words of a press release — as “committed to upholding the democratic ideals of an elected government.” The government is simply “defending itself and its people against the brutal actions of [the opposition]” — or so the press release said. Paid lobbyists and professional message peddlers repeated the story in social media, press releases and meetings with lawmakers and administration officials.
Achuk’s reaction to this argument is emotional. The firms working for South Sudan, he said, are profiting from war.
“You are benefiting, you are a beneficiary of a war situation,” he said. “This is blood money.”
That South Sudan government press release, circulated last July, came from a firm called R&R Partners, a Las Vegas-based marketing and lobbying agency with 330 employees and offices in nine cities, including Washington. The firm is best known for coining that promotional phrase, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
The firm is led by Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime friend and PR consultant for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. His profile on the R&R website begins with a quote from The New York Times: “Every dream needs a merchant, every myth a mythmaker. In Las Vegas, that job falls to Billy Vassiliadis.” The website profile goes on to say that Vassiliadis has been “swaying opinions, shaping public policy and persuading the hard to persuade … for more than 30 years.”
Vassiliadis said he was not personally involved in the South Sudan contract, but in addition to helping South Sudan, his firm has also worked for the Indonesian government, Sri Lanka, Boeing and Busch Gardens. The firm’s website mentions that R&R has worked in West Central Africa, but doesn’t mention South Sudan by name.
R&R nevertheless agreed to “develop a plan to heighten the visibility and positive image of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan in the United States,” a Center for Public Integrity review of the firm’s contract with South Sudan indicates.
R&R’s pro-South Sudan public outreach plan included communicating with nonprofits and U.S. government officials. The firm’s consultants contacted dozens of members of Congress, congressional staff, State Department officials, think tanks and nonprofits to discuss the issues of sanctions and the peace process, disclosures show.
“Sanctions only serve to weaken peace efforts and demoralize ambitions of the elected government,” reads a press release that R&R Partners prepared for South Sudan.
The poverty-stricken nation paid R&R Partners $900,000. That’s more than any other public relations firm South Sudan employed for communications designed to boost its image, secure financial aid and investment and discourage punitive measures by the U.S. government. The contract, which began in January 2015, ended at the close of 2015, though documents show that South Sudan still owes R&R another $900,000 payment.
R&R also set up a now-defunct social media campaign around the slogan “Stand up South Sudan,” on Twitter, describing the account as “a voice for the people and the Republic of South Sudan … focused on achieving peace and prosperity.”
Among those working on the South Sudan contract was Bill Owens, the former Republican governor of Colorado. Sean Tonner, the president of R&R’s Denver office, who also worked on the account, previously served as the deputy chief of staff to Owens during his gubernatorial tenure.
Last March, Owens wrote that “forces of evil have been on the march,” and warned that “terrorism thrives where civil society has collapsed,” in an op-ed in The Hill.
“I believe it is in our national interest to be engaged and to support the elected government of the world’s youngest nation,” he wrote of South Sudan.
The fact that Owens was paid $50,000 for his work on South Sudan through R&R went undisclosed in the commentary, which instead listed him as the 40th governor of Colorado and a senior fellow at the University of Denver’s Institute for Public Policy Studies. The Foreign Agents Registration Act dictates that a “conspicuous statement” must be present on disseminated materials, disclosing the relationship between the firm and client.
Monica McCafferty of R&R Partners, who worked on the contract said in an email, “the failure to issue the disclosure on the op-ed itself was an inadvertent human error and mistake, made in haste.”
Owens did not respond to requests for comment.
McCafferty sent an emailed statement saying, “Our goal was to help end the civil war and direct more U.S. foreign aid to the nation.”
The firm worked with members of the South Sudanese community that “shared the vision of bringing long-lasting peace,” the statement continues.
“We stand behind our work. … All work our firm chooses to take on is done so deliberately,” she stated. “In this case, we knew that we were representing the elected, recognized side of government (as opposed to the rebel forces).”
R&R was not alone. Government affairs firm Watts Partners, which bills itself as “the largest African-American owned lobbying company in Washington,” represented South Sudan from July 2015 to February 2016 as a subcontractor with London-based advisory firm Arise Consult. The firm provided “government-to-government advocacy and business development advisory services” for South Sudan for $120,000, documents show.
Firm founder and chairman J.C. Watts Jr. is a former star quarterback at the University of Oklahoma who was considered an up-and-coming star in Republican political circles during his eight years representing Oklahoma’s 4th District in Congress, from 1995 to 2003.
The Watts Partners website does not mention South Sudan. And the firm submitted required disclosures to the Justice Department only after the Center for Public Integrity inquired about the relationship. Filings showed that Watts Partners met with lawmakers, State Department officials and nonprofits to discuss sanctions and U.S.-South Sudan relations.
Steve Pruitt, a senior partner at Watts Partners who worked with South Sudan, said the goal of the contract was “to help the government develop and increase communications with U.S. policymakers” concerning humanitarian aid and peace talks.
The contract was successful, he said, because in the end, parties signed the August peace agreement. And as for concerns over human rights violations, Pruitt said he was unaware of the government’s and opposition’s involvement in such acts.
“I have no direct knowledge on the part of either party as to what kind of atrocities, if you will, were being perpetrated,” he said. “I really can’t speak to that. I think our whole objective was to use our knowledge of the U.S. system and resources to help bring peace, and I think that’s what we focused on.”
The list goes on. KRL International began working on behalf of South Sudan in February 2014 to provide “a communications and advocacy program in support of efforts to consolidate peace, reconciliation and the development of priorities,” according to the contract.
The company describes itself online as a boutique consulting firm that tries to “bridge the divide between the United States and the world’s emerging markets.” Headed by longtime international consultant K. Riva Levinson, other KRL International clients include the government of Liberia, for which the firm writes that it has “sustained an aggressive advocacy effort” on its website.
Working on the South Sudan account was Eric Chinje, a Cameroonian national, who formerly worked for the World Bank. The contract cost South Sudan $600,000 and ended in May 2015.
KRL International was first introduced to its client in November 2013 before the outbreak of war, when South Sudan invited the firm to its country, KRL’s managing director Chris Beatty said in an email. The firm “returned to the country in February 2014, at the height of the conflict, to support mediating efforts to consolidate peace and reconciliation” Beatty continued. He did not respond to questions about human rights concerns in South Sudan.
The super-connected Podesta Group also worked for South Sudan, collecting $480,000 for its representation from March 2014 to December 2015, disclosures show. In regard to its global work, the firm’s website says it “knows where to go, who to talk to and what makes them listen.” One of the services offered by its global group is “reputation management.”
The company provided research, communicated with the press and lawmakers and counseled South Sudan on strengthening its ties to the U.S., the contract shows. In its outreach, the firm contacted dozens of members of Congress, State Department officials, nonprofits and newspapers, meeting with several in person to discuss U.S.-South Sudan relations.
Firm leader Tony Podesta, one of the Democratic party’s more active fundraisers over the years, has through March 31 helped Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign raise nearly a quarter-million dollars, federal records show.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Shortly after South Sudan gained independence, then-secretary Clinton welcomed the new government, saying, “We will work with you, we will stand with you, we will support you.” But her tenure as secretary ended in early 2013, 10 months before factional fighting broke out.
Podesta Group employees working on the account included a number of former high-ranking government advisers and Washington insiders.
- David Adams served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs and chief legislative adviser to then-secretary Clinton;
- Mark Tavlarides worked as the special assistant for international security affairs to the secretary of defense during President Bill Clinton’s administration; and
- Stephen Rademaker previously served as former assistant secretary of state, and headed State Department bureaus under President George W. Bush; he also served as a chief staffer on several committees on Capitol Hill.
When the Center for Public Integrity asked Tony Podesta about the contract by email, a communications strategist at the firm responded, stating, “It is our company policy not to discuss the work we do for clients other than what is publicly available.”
Reporters from the Center for Public Integrity and its reporting partner WAMU-FM, a Washington, D.C., National Public Radio affiliate, went to the firm in person to ask about the work, but upon identifying themselves as reporters, were told by a receptionist, “You gotta’ exit. You don’t have an appointment. Good day.” Podesta Group’s foreign lobbying has included other controversial clients — including Azerbaijan, Egypt and the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court, an arm of the Saudi government.
In Podesta Group’s words, South Sudan’s government is “committed to lasting peace, justice and accountability” and President Kiir “cares deeply about his people and their wellbeing,” according to a press release issued on behalf of the South Sudanese Embassy.
This glowing review, along with others, was sent to dozens of staff members both on Capitol Hill and in the State Department, disclosures show.
A U.N. report on human rights, accountability and reconciliation in South Sudan, released in March, offered a contrasting assessment.
“Despite repeated commitments to end the violence, protect civilians and punish perpetrators, to date, there is no evidence or available public information of any genuine efforts by the government to investigate, prosecute and punish violations and abuses, some of them amounting to international crimes,” the report states.
For its part, Podesta discouraged sanctions in press materials as something that “will undoubtedly lead to [the] collapse of [a] fragile peace agreement, resulting in potential loss of lives and suffering for the people of South Sudan.”
But the humanitarian expert said South Sudan’s lobbying efforts included statements that were “just blatantly, patently false” in portraying the nation.
“This is the first time ever, since I’ve done this job,” said the expert, “… that I’ve had to lobby against a professional lobbying firm which is trying to undermine peace, and human rights and humanitarian efforts.”
Seeking help in DC
But South Sudan’s lobbying is far from an isolated phenomenon. Egypt turned to Glover Park Group for help after cutbacks to military aid in late 2013 that came about because of the Obama administration’s disappointment in the slow progress toward democratization and fair elections. Last year with the help of Podesta Group, Azerbaijan successfully turned its image around from human rights abuser to friend of the United States.
Countries with the worst human rights records have increasingly sought Washington lobbyists and PR professionals since 2010, the Center for Public Integrity reported in December.
More than $168 million worth of contracts for lobbying was expended on behalf of troubled nations from 2010 to 2015. Russia and Saudi Arabia far outspent most countries on representation with more than $40 million each worth of contracts during that period. Firms like Ketchum, Qorvis/MSLGroup, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and Squire Patton Boggs topped the list of those taking work from the governments with the worst human rights records. Other countries that spent millions to try to influence public opinion and policy included Egypt, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq and Azerbaijan.
Toby Moffett, a former congressman and current lobbyist for Mayer Brown, has years of experience representing foreign nations on Capitol Hill. For nations that are still developing or face problems like human rights violations, navigating Washington can be difficult, he said.
“The more of a developing country that you are, the more difficult it is to cut through the noise,” he said of D.C.
At his firm, Moffett asserted, clients must pass a tough screening process that examines how work would be paid for and whether there’s been progress made on any problems. However, “there’s firms that’ll do virtually anything,” he said.
And taking on the worst offenders might be worth it for some.
“I think the really bad guys have to pay a premium,” Moffett said.
Not surprisingly, some contend that South Sudan’s funds could have been better invested elsewhere than on reputation management in the U.S.
For one, the money could’ve helped avoid the dire food crisis that the South Sudanese currently face, said Daniel Sullivan, formerly director of policy and government relations for nonprofit United to End Genocide.
“There is no doubt that the million-plus dollars spent by the government of South Sudan on lobbyists could have been better used to relieve the suffering of millions of people in South Sudan,” Sullivan said. “Instead of focusing on public relations, South Sudan’s leaders should have focused on preventing the alarming food insecurity, effectively famine, decimating their people today.”
The South Sudanese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Others say the lobbying efforts were fruitless, while still others say it’s hard to tell, or is simply beside the point.
Capuano, who co-sponsored legislation on South Sudan and visited the nation last year, said his priority is the effective delivery of humanitarian aid. He expressed uncertainty that lobbying efforts could help the nation and said it’s unhelpful to play the “blame game” with the warring parties.
“I need to help people stop being murdered,” Capuano said. “That’s the moral high ground to me. And I will deal with anybody I have to deal with. I will withhold judgment on those people if I think it’ll help.”
But the situation is too violent for the South Sudanese government to hide their actions with lobbying, he said.
“No lobbyist, no matter how good they are, they can’t change the facts on the ground,” Capuano said.
Aid workers targeted
Even on Capitol Hill, where seemingly every moneyed special interest is vigorously represented, there have been moments of exasperation.
At a December hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, experts from USAID and the State Department, after some hesitation, confirmed that South Sudanese government forces, as well as the opposition, had intentionally targeted aid workers in violence.
“You ought to be embarrassed,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told representatives there from the South Sudanese Embassy.
Corker asked how a nation could accept more than $1 billion in aid from the United States while targeting aid workers. He then held up a press release, saying, “I would be embarrassed to send out the kind of press release that you sent out prior to this hearing.”
The press release had been sent to nearly 20 staff members on Capitol Hill and in the State Department just before the hearing. It praised President Kiir as a “hero” and blamed humanitarian challenges on a “lack of funds.” It also asked the U.S. and others to “redouble its efforts” to support South Sudan.
A Capitol Hill staffer who shared the press release with the Center for Public Integrity said there was no indication that a PR or lobbying firm was involved in the writing or distribution of the document.
But filings that the Center for Public Integrity requested from the Department of Justice reveal its creators in an email: “The Podesta Group provides representation to the government of the Republic of South Sudan.”
Patrick Madden of WAMU-FM 88.5, a Washington, D.C.-based National Public Radio affiliate, contributed to this report.
Versions of this story appear on Vice News and WAMU-FM 88.5. Listen to WAMU’s radio report here.