Bribes, congressional wives, lobbyist children, far-flung countries, and jet-setting congressmen. Add it all together and you’re reading the ingredient label of a old fashioned congressional scandal, circa 2004-2006. Hot off the shelf is the investigation into former-Rep. Curt Weldon’s dealings with Russia companies with ties to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal added new dynamite to an investigation that led to FBI raids on Weldon’s offices, the lobbying offices of his daughter – a lobbyist, and the offices of her employer, the shady Russian energy giant, Itera. One of Weldon’s ex-staffers, Russell Caso, is currently cooperating with the Feds after pleading guilty for failing to disclose payments made to his wife from a firm “helping American businesses operate in Russia.” That firm is now identified as the International Exchange Group, an organization with deep ties to Weldon.
The Journal tells the story:
International Exchange was founded by Vladimir Petrosyan, who claimed to have ties to the Kremlin, according to Louisiana lawyer Claude Kelly, who also was involved with the firm. Mr. Kelly said in an interview that Mr. Petrosyan introduced him to top Russian officials including Alexei Alexandrov, a member of the Russian Parliament. Mr. Petrosyan, who left the U.S. in 2006, couldn’t be located for comment.
In his 20 years in Congress, Rep. Weldon, who speaks Russian and made many trips to Russia, often sought to strengthen relations between the U.S. and Eastern Bloc nations. One person who dealt with Mr. Petrosyan said he used a business card with the House of Representatives seal that identified him as an adviser to Mr. Weldon.
Mr. Weldon, who served on the Armed Services Committee, promoted International Exchange Group, describing it in a Sept. 22, 2004, House speech as “comprised of senior [Russian] military, intelligence and political officials.” The group was “established by President Vladimir Putin’s plenipotentiary representative to the Duma…[and] includes the key people who are personally friendly with Putin,” including the deputy chief of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, Mr. Weldon told the House Committee on International Relations on March 9, 2005.
Mr. Petrosyan, who was the “general secretary” of the group, “met frequently and sought official action from” then-Rep. Weldon, the Caso plea statement alleges. Mr. Weldon directed Mr. Caso to seek U.S. government backing for projects involving biological and chemical weapons and he “made presentations to various executive branch agencies, including to high-level officials in the Departments of State and Energy and the National Security Council.”
As it turns out, Weldon was successful in his work for IEG. At Wired’s Danger Room blog, Sharon Weinberger and Nathan Hodge report that a government agency did in fact award a $100 million contract to IEG. They also report on how Weldon found himself in the middle of this corrupt scheme. This is what Weldon told them back in 2006:
I had a group of Russians approach me two years ago, three years ago through David Vitter, a U.S. senator. He was then a house member. One of David’s best friends from childhood is a lawyer named Claude Kelly. He said, David Vitter said, “Spend some time with these guys: they have some ideas about Russia and they want to talk to you.” They bring a delegation; Vitter with them. They introduced themselves as representative of a man, Kotenkov. He worked in the equivalent in West Wing. [Aleksander] Kotenkov sent them over here to establish a new relationship between the United States and Russia, directly involving Putin’s inner circle. They tell me, “If you pursue this: you can get access to any [WMD] sites you want in Russia, you can get cooperation with any project in Russia. We’ll give you access the inner circle of President Putin.”
Sen. Vitter may have more to worry about here than he ever did with Deborah Jeane Palfrey.
Truly, the influence business in Washington is so much more than any one campaign contribution or earmark. In the end, it’s about personal relationships, even the life-long ones, like the one between Sen. Vitter and Claude Kelly that started this whole international ballet. And yes, it also matters who you sit down and have a drink with when the day is over.