2 Trump-aligned GOP operatives face foreign agent charges for helping Qatar

2 Trump-aligned GOP operatives face foreign agent charges for helping Qatar

Bob Menendez isn’t the only Washington insider in hot water for his dealings with Qatar.

Two longtime Republican political consultants who backed Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign admitted in court filings Tuesday to deceiving the Justice Department about their lobbying activities on behalf of the small but wealthy Arab nation.

Barry Bennett and Doug Watts acknowledged they accepted funds from the Qatari government in exchange for promoting efforts to influence U.S. policy in the Middle East and engaged in a scheme to mislead investigators about those dealings.

The charges against the two consultants were publicly disclosed in court documents in Washington just minutes before federal prosecutors in New York unveiled a new indictment against Menendez (D-N.J.) that charged him with aiding the Qatari government in exchange for bribes.

There was no clear connection between the Menendez indictment and the Bennett and Watts cases, but the simultaneous unveiling of the charges hints at the extent to which the oil-rich country may have harnessed political allies in both parties to advocate for its interests in Washington.

Prosecutors indicated that Bennett and Watts have entered into “deferred prosecution” agreements that will allow the charges to be dismissed after a year if the men comply with the terms of the deals. The two men face charges for scheming to conceal work for a foreign government and making false statements about their work.

As part of the agreements, Bennett will pay a $100,000 fine, and Watts will pay $25,000. Both also agreed to abstain for a year from engaging in any lobbying or public relations work covered by the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Bennett and Watts joined pro-Trump efforts after they departed the imploding campaign of then-GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson in 2016.

Prosecutors contend that Bennett and Watts set up an organization called “Yemen Crisis Watch” at Qatar’s behest to call attention to allegations of the Saudi Arabian government’s brutality in a military conflict with the Houthi militant group in Yemen.

In an August 2017 email, Bennett wrote to Watts that he would be “involved in the entity” while Bennett would “manage the entire project quietly,” according to a statement of facts filed in the cases Tuesday.

The two men organized briefings about related issues on Capitol Hill and helped organize the placement of at least two op-eds in the Washington Examiner.

Lawyers for Bennett and Watts did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Under the terms of the deal, the men and their agents may not make any statements disputing or undercutting the facts laid out by prosecutors.

After Carson’s campaign fizzled in 2016, Bennett took a job as a senior adviser for delegate issues on the Trump campaign, while Watts became the national executive director of a pro-Trump super PAC, the Committee for American Sovereignty.

Bennett has been a prominent GOP strategist for years and opened a lobbying shop with Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski soon after the 2016 election. Lewandowski left the company early in Trump’s term, and Bennett closed the firm shortly after Joe Biden took office.

According to the new court filings, Bennett and Watts’ work on Yemen Crisis Watch lasted only about six months, but it has been under scrutiny by investigators for about four years.

Word of the probe emerged publicly in 2021. In an interview with POLITICO in May 2021, Bennett described reports of the investigation as “rumors.” Bennett’s financial assets were also partially frozen after an associate on the Carson campaign, Ying Ma, sued him in a state court in Maryland, claiming he’d failed to pay her $300,000 she was owed and lied to federal investigators about her.

Bennett denied the claims. The pair later settled the suit.

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