Albania’s hidden diplomats: How lobbying in America became a sphere of campaign influence

Afrim Krasniqi, a political analyst and executive director of the Institute for Political Studies in Albania. Photo: Antonio Çakshiri

by J.D. Capelouto, Elsa Çerpja and Lorin Kadiu

This story is the third in a series produced by reporter-fellows participating in an exchange program between the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University and the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism in Tirana.

Albanian political parties last year paid nearly 30 million Albanian lekë ($277,800) to lobbying firms in the U.S. to gain influence and access to U.S. politicians. But no Albanian citizen looking at a campaign finance report would know that.

The expenses on the finance reports — which were released by the parties following the 2017 parliamentary election — are listed simply as payment for “consultancy,” with a box where parties can add a few explanatory words if they choose to. There’s no detailed information in Albania about exactly how the party money was spent or what the parties got in return.

An investigation by the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism and the U.S.-based New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that the lack of information about foreign lobbying is one of several loopholes in the law that allows Albanian political parties to withhold important information from voters.

“We have no special laws regulating lobbying in Albania,” said Aranita Brahaj, the executive director of the Albanian Institute of Science which advocates for government transparency. She added that the lobbying activities are technically legal. “Since most of the contracts are signed with U.S. companies, they have been subject to its laws.”

Aranita Brahaj, the executive director of the Albanian Institute of Science. Photo: Lorin Kadiu

While specific information about the lobbying is hidden from Albanian voters, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) requires lobbyists to file paperwork listing which foreign clients they work for and what they do for each one — but most of those papers were released months after the election in Albania.

An analysis of the documents paints a portrait of Albanian politicians taking advantage of the positive relationship between the two nations for their political gain. Much of the lobbying work is done through closed-door meetings, confidential emails, or photo opportunities, the documents show.

“Our political parties spend a lot on lobbying, but what they get back is ridiculous, unimaginable and untouchable for the citizens,” said Afrim Krasniqi, a political analyst and executive director of the Institute for Political Studies in Albania, who added that the lobbying activities often result in formal meetings or photographs with U.S. officials.

The documents suggest that the lobbyists hired by the Socialist Party of Albania acted as de facto diplomats for the country, meeting with and contacting U.S. officials about foreign relations with Albania, for example.

The minority parties’ lobbyists, meanwhile, mostly sought meetings to discuss the elections or photo-ops of party leaders with American officials, including President Donald Trump.

The real purpose, according to Krasniqi, is “just to make a picture and to show that the world’s largest state is near me. It’s simple,” he said. “There is no relation to the state and to the public interest.”

The Central Election Commission, which regulates and oversees Albanian elections, does not require the parties to report what their lobbyists are doing, and the contracts with the lobbyists are not publicly available to voters on any Albanian government website.

“In most cases, I believe that these kinds of financing related to lobbying are wrong and [an] abusive concept,” Krasniqi said. “But in compliance with Albanian law, most of the financial resources provided for these lobbying [activities] are legitimate.”

A series of hefty payments

Lobbying contracts made up a substantial proportion of the electoral budgets for the three biggest parties in Albania.

The Socialist Party, the majority party, paid the firm Ballard Partners more than 14,250,000 lekë through September, the equivalent of $20,000 a month. Those costs made up almost 16 percent of the party’s paid campaign expenses — almost as much as it paid on for media, and more than double what it paid for administrative costs.

The Democratic Party of Albania spent about one-fifth of its 2017 expenses on lobbying, totaling 12,585,000 lekë ($116,500), according to the party’s financial filing. It had contracts with two lobbying groups: Barnes & Thornburg and Muzin Capitol Partners, the latter of which was paid by a separate firm, rather than the party itself.

The Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) had just a one-month contract with the McKeon Group, totaling 1,942,500 lekë, a relatively small portion of its expenses.

The ‘real’ purpose of Albanian influence?

Before the election, the Socialist Party’s lobbyists in the U.S. contacted officials including members of Congress, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, and State Department officials, for the purpose of official U.S.-Albanian relations, according to the DOJ documents.

“Improvements of Albania-U.S. relations is important to the success of the party,” said Robert Wexler, a former U.S. congressman and one of the Socialist party’s lobbyists. “The two were intertwined in a very direct way.”

Wexler said that during the election, it was important for the political party to help shape “the perception of the Albanians of how [the politicians] are managing their relations with the United States.”

Records show that in the weeks and months after the election, Ballard Partners’ lobbyists, including Wexler, continued to contact U.S. officials and lawmakers. The official purpose, according to the DOJ filing, was “US-Albanian Relations” [sic].

And in an email to more than 60 staff members in the Senate and House of Representatives in November 2017, Wexler sent updates on “the latest developments regarding Albania,” according to documents filed with the DOJ. He wrote that the information was distributed on behalf of the Socialist Party of Albania, but attached articles that were mostly about general Albania news, and not specifically related to the party itself.

In a registration filing on behalf of its work for the Democratic Party, Muzin Capitol Partners said it “promoted conservative leadership in Albania to business and political leaders in the United States.” The firm, led by former Donald Trump campaign aide Nick Muzin, arranged meetings with congressmen. It also reportedly helped the party’s leader Lulzim Basha get a picture with Trump, and arranged for a pro-DPA article in Breitbart News.

The LSI paid the McKeon Group $15,000 for services that included arranging meetings in Washington and securing attendance at Trump’s inauguration for the party’s leader, current Albanian President Ilir Meta, documents show. The lobbyists also introduced the party’s leaders to five members of Congress.

Krasniqi said that since all of the main political parties lobbied in America, it ended up not having a large impact on the opinions of voters.

Brahaj agreed, saying the results of the lobbying were “not very qualitative.” Brahaj’s organization has urged that the parties’ contracts with American lobbying firms be more transparent and accessible to the public in Albania.

No ‘clear bright line’

Though Albanian campaign finance laws do not prohibit using campaign funds to lobby in the U.S., some question whether it is appropriate to use donor or taxpayer money to essentially buy photo opportunities with U.S. officials or outsource the typical diplomacy functions of government.

“We think it’s much better to have that a clear bright line,” Wilmot said, “so that the public pays for public goods.”

An analysis of foreign lobbying work in the U.S. suggests that it is more typical for an official government — not political parties — to pay for Washington-based lobbyists in the first place.

The firms that did work for Albanian parties in 2017 also represented the Government of the Dominican Republic, the Republic of Turkey, the Republic of Kosovo, the Government of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Guatemala.

Many other Balkan countries, including Kosovo, Montenegro, and Greece, have recently had lobbyists working for them in Washington; in those cases, the “foreign registrant” with the DOJ is listed as the official government, rather than a political party.

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