Apr 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Former U.S. ambassador accused of illegal foreign lobbying

Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan
Richard Olson at his confirmation hearing, July 31, 2012, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, has been criminally charged for his alleged role in an undisclosed lobbying campaign for the Qatari government, records show.

Driving the news: Prosecutors accuse Olson, a career foreign service officer who served as an ambassador under President Barack Obama, of courting foreign work while in office and using his political influence to advance Qatari interests in Washington after leaving government.

  • The Justice Department has charged him with making false statements in ethics paperwork and violating laws restricting foreign lobbying by ex-federal officials, both misdemeanors.
  • In court filings, Olson said he plans to plead guilty.
  • His attorneys did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.

Details: According to a criminal information filed this month, which has not been previously reported, Olson received $20,000 monthly payments from an unnamed Pakistani American lobbyist for the work.

  • They agreed on that work "either just prior to, or shortly after" Olson left government service, prosecutors say.
  • The lobbyist also flew Olson to London in early 2015, while he was serving as ambassador, to meet an unidentified Bahraini businessperson who offered Olson a $300,000-per-year contract at their company, the Justice Department says.
  • Court filings do not say whether an agreement was reached.

After leaving government service in late 2016, Olson worked with his Pakistani American contact and high-level Qatari government officials to advance Doha's interests in Washington, prosecutors allege.

  • When Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf nations cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017 and blockaded its only land border, citing financial support for terrorism, Olson lobbied U.S. government officials to take Qatar's side in the dispute, the DOJ says.
  • According to the information, Olson personally contacted the U.S. ambassador to Qatar and "several sitting members of the U.S. House of Representatives" as part of the effort.
  • Prosecutors say he also provided behind-the-scenes support for a Qatari government lobbying campaign aimed at establishing U.S. Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance facilities at the Doha airport.

Federal law bars senior U.S. officials from participating in any lobbying or public relations efforts on behalf of foreign governments within a year of leaving office.

  • Prosecutors say Olson also knowingly filed false Office of Government Ethics paperwork by failing to disclose payments from his Pakistani American contact for travel to London, where they discussed post-government business agreements.
  • While Olson never registered as a foreign agent of Qatar, he is not charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The big picture: The Gulf diplomatic crisis of 2017 was a boon for influential Washington lobbyists, who pulled in huge fees from governments on both sides of the dispute.

  • Multiple people involved in that work have since been criminally charged for violations of foreign lobbying laws.
  • Pakistani American businessman Imaad Zuberi, who worked with the Qatari government, was sentenced to 12 years in prison last year for a sprawling scheme of illicit influence peddling, tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions.
  • Federal prosecutors last year charged former Trump inauguration chairman Tom Barrack with failing to disclose advocacy on behalf of the UAE government. Barrack has pleaded not guilty.
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