How Qatar Uses An American Nonprofit To Hide Major Influence Operation In The United States

The Attorney General Alliance has become “laundromat” for nefarious entities working to influence American politics, critics say
Businessman from Qatar / Getty Images

When Utah’s Republican attorney general Sean Reyes was spotted in 2022 at the World Cup in Qatar, a tiny oil-rich kingdom in the Middle East best known for its human rights abuses and financing of terrorism, his team gave an odd explanation. Qatar did pay for his trip, but it provided the funds through an American nonprofit organization: the Attorney General Alliance.

The Attorney General Alliance, better known as the AGA, presents itself as a bipartisan forum for state attorneys general to collaborate with each other. But the explanation from Reyes appears to be the first public disclosure of what sources say the organization has become: a “laundromat” that unsavory entities such as Qatar can use to hide their influence campaigns in American politics.

AGA has members on both sides of the aisle who have participated in its Qatar trips, including Republicans such as Utah’s Reyes and former Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, and Democrats such as Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford and Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors.

Utah has no disclosure requirement for foreign trips (although lawmakers pushed for one after Reyes was caught in Qatar), but disclosure forms filed for attorneys general from other states illustrate AGA’s valuable role. Ford’s Nevada disclosure, for example, says AGA footed the $15,000 bill for his Qatar trip, even though in reality that spending was all covered by the Qataris. Connors’ disclosure of a $12,000 trip in 2020 says AGA paid, and Brnovich, who has traveled to Qatar several times, including for the World Cup, also makes no indication that Qatar covered the $1,000-$25,000 travel costs on his disclosures, instead pinning the trip to AGA.

One top aide to an attorney general who has traveled to Qatar with AGA says the nonprofit has turned itself into a “laundromat.”

“What AGA has turned itself into is a laundromat for anybody who wants to do stuff without having to disclose it,” the top aide told The Daily Wire. “And AGA figured that its number one thing to sell is that it can get AGs to go on foreign trips with them.”

AGA’s pitch to potential sponsors is a window into what makes it so attractive to countries like Qatar. The group’s 2021 call for sponsorships, which cost between $75,000 and $500,000 for different levels, advertises the attorneys general as the next generation of political leaders, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Daily Wire.

Included on its list of “Noteworthy Former AGs” is former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Senators such as John Cornyn (R-TX) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and U.S. Governors such ass Steve Bullock (D-MT). The obvious message is that while these guys may have a low profile now, they could be the political stars of tomorrow.

“It’s not a huge investment for an oil regime, and the upside is huge,” the aide said. “You have the chance that one of those guys then becomes a senator, or a governor, or an administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,” a reference to Scott Pruitt, who was Oklahoma’s Attorney General and active in AGA before joining the Trump administration.

Screenshot from AGA sponsorship document

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst for the U.S. Treasury, says the amount Qatar is paying to bring attorneys general to its capital city of Doha is a drop in the bucket.

“The Qataris have seemingly endless wealth,” Schanzer, the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Wire. “This is a country of 250,000 Qatari citizens and the sheer amount of money that it has been spending in the United States is staggering.”

Preliminary research by Schanzer’s organization shared with The Daily Wire shows that Qatar has spent nearly $200 million on lobbying in the United States since 2017.

“The goal, obviously, is to gain sway here in the United States, to be able to wield the considerable soft power that the Qataris have amassed through acquisitions, through lobbying, through sports,” Schanzer said. “It is really remarkable to see the ways in which this Islamist country has worked to gain influence not only in the United States but around the world.”

A chunk of Qatar’s lobbying spending is going to a man associated with AGA named Richard Smotkin, who through his firm ThirdCircle Inc. has been paid $1,947,508 by Qatar since he first registered as a foreign agent in March 2019, according to a review of quarterly Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) filings.

The description of “activities and services” provided by Smotkin for Qatar in exchange for roughly $120,000 each quarter appears to be related to the AGA trips to Doha.

“Assisted in arranging for state and local elected officials to participate in delegations traveling to Qatar for meetings with government officials, business and trade representatives, and representatives of other organizations and institutions,” his FARA filings state.

Smotkin is the driving force behind what has become an annual trip to Qatar, according to multiple sources.

“Everyone knows Smotkin is the guy coordinating the Middle East trips — it’s a well known fact,” said one fellow lobbyist who has been on AGA’s foreign trips.

Smotkin’s lobbying firm, ThirdCircle, is listed as one of AGA’s sponsors in 2023, according to a document obtained by The Daily Wire, though it is unclear how much the firm paid AGA.

Smotkin is viewed as such a nefarious figure that President Joe Biden even returned his donations in the 2020 election cycle, according to Mercury News.

Unlike Smotkin, it does not appear that AGA’s executive director Karen White nor any other member of her group registers as a foreign agent for Qatar. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear how much Qatar pays AGA. The group is registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and is therefore not required to disclose the source of its income.

Its tax filings, which appear under its former name, the Conference of Western Attorneys General, do show, however, that business is booming since 2017, the year the trips to Qatar appear to have begun.

Its most recent filing shows that annual revenues skyrocketed by more than $3 million, largely due to a massive increase in the amount of money brought in through sponsorships. As sponsorship revenues increase, so has White’s salary — annual filings show her salary has increased each year, moving from $310,986 in 2017 to $487,084 in the most recent year.

AGA’s transformation had become apparent to many in the legal field for years, and attorneys general have been made aware.

Chris Toth, the former executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General, wrote in his retirement letter last June to all fifty attorneys general that he had “become increasingly alarmed at the growing influence of lobbyist and corporate money in the attorney general arena,” adding that AGA “seems to exist for no other reason than to provide access by such actors to attorneys general.”

Toth laid out that because AGA is “dependent on corporate and lobbyist money,” it’s those interests that are paying for your activities with the group.

“That means when you go on a delegation, some lobbyist or corporation is paying for that,” Toth wrote. “When you have your room and airfare paid for, some portion of that is coming from someone you are investigating or suing.”

And because AGA doesn’t disclose its donors, “no transparency exists that allows the public to know who is gaining access to their AG and at what cost,” Toth states.

Schanzer says it’s “incredibly poor optics“ that one of the entities gaining access to attorneys general is Qatar.

“The optics are incredibly poor, given the fact that the Qataris have been identified by the U.S. Treasury multiple times as a country of concern as it relates to illicit finance of terrorism,” Schanzer said. “The Government of Qatar has been widely accused of human rights violations, and outright bribery as it related to the acquisition of the World Cup bid.”

Alan Crooks, a top consultant for Reyes, who first disclosed AGA’s role as the passthrough for Qatar paying for his World Cup trip, discounted allegations that Qatar is uniquely corrupt.

“What you’re describing is Tuesday in the world,” Crooks told The Daily Wire in reference to using wealth to gain influence on the world stage. “The worst offender of that in the entire world is easily the United States. Trying to make Qatar look like they’re doing something nobody else is doing, what are you talking about?”

Crooks said Reyes has established a “personal relationship” with the Qataris, and has been “able to strengthen his relationship” through his numerous trips to Doha. That relationship came in handy, Crooks says, when Reyes was able to use his personal connections with Qatar to get high-profile refugees out of Afghanistan and settled in Utah.

Schanzer says being helpful after the collapse of Kabul to the Taliban is right out of Qatar’s playbook to play both “arsonist and firefighter” on the world stage, explaining that Qatar supported the Taliban’s comeback.

“They enabled the Taliban, brokered these discussions between the United States and the Taliban that ultimately led to America’s ill-fated departure from the country,” Schanzer said. “Qatar helped pave the way for all of this, and now they’re facilitating discussions to help for the release of individuals from within Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.”

“They’re using the soft power they established to be able to do that. This is how the Qataris operate.”

In addition to paying for U.S. officials to travel to Doha, the Qataris have shown up stateside at AGA events. In 2019, three Qatari officials — the King’s Attorney General, Qatar’s Ambassador to the U.S., and Qatar’s Attorney General — were given speaking roles at AGA’s annual meeting, according to a conference agenda. Video of the event shows the Qataris were introduced for their panel by none other than Utah’s Reyes, who referenced his past visits.

Reyes called the Attorney General, Dr. Ali Bin Fetais Al-Marri, “a favorite among many of our attorneys general, who helped host us and showed incredible hospitality to our delegation.”

“Thank you general, assalamu alaikum,” Reyes said, before referring to the men as “public servants” and “heroes.” The visit was highlighted in Qatar’s Gulf Times as “strategic cooperation” between Qatar and the United States.

The conference took place in June 2019, just a few months after Smotkin’s initial filing as a foreign agent for Qatar.

While AGA conducts several foreign trips, the trips to Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar have a different feeling, according to the lobbyist who participated in the trips.

“On the Middle Eastern trips there is more interaction with the governments themselves,” said the lobbyist. “You go to Spain, nobody is talking to the Spanish government. You go to England, nobody is talking to the English government. But when you’re going to the Middle East, there’s overlay, and all of a sudden the government is involved.”

AGA earned scrutiny over the summer after it was reported that the embattled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went with the group to China, where he was hosted by the Chinese Communist Party.

Brnovich, Connors, and Ford did not respond to requests for comment on their trips to Qatar, and whether their statements on ethics disclosures were accurate. Neither Smotkin nor other representatives of Qatar responded to requests for comment.

Crooks, the Reyes consultant, says the attorney general didn’t see any overt corruption on his Qatar trips, but was prepared to deal with it.

“Nobody offered him a Ferrari,” Crooks said. “He understood what the situation was, he understood who he was with. He understands how this stuff works.”

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