The Other McCain

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‘MalaysiaGate’ Day Four: Conspicuous Silence and Convenient Memory Lapses

Posted on | March 4, 2013 | 22 Comments

June 2008: Jerome Armstrong posted to Photostream this photo of him and
Josh Treviño meeting with Zaid Ibrahim in Malaysia (click image to enlarge)

Questions about the “MalaysiaGate” controversy — in which American bloggers were paid as part of a foreign government’s public-relations campaign — continued to be asked Monday, the fourth day since Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed reported on conservative blogger Josh Treviño’s disclosure to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Gray reported Friday that Treviño filed his disclosure in compliance with the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), listing $389,724.70 he collected as part of the Malaysia deal, reportedly brokered by Internet consultant David All.

Treviño and All, both aligned with the Republican Party, were partners with Democrat campaign consultant Jerome Armstrong in a now-defunct Web site, MalaysiaMatters.com, that was part of the paid P.R. operation. Treviño also disclosed that he paid 10 “independent contractors” to provide “opinion writing” about Malaysia in 2009 and 2010. Those payments totalled $130,950, including $36,000 to Ben Domenech, $30,000 to Rachel Ehrenfeld, $24,700 to Brad Jackson, $11,000 to Christopher Badeux and $9,500 to Rachel Motte. Minus those payments to subcontractors, Treviño’s net share of the Malaysia deal amounted to more than $250,000 over the course of three years, from May 2008 to April 2011. His FARA disclosure, filed Jan. 24 this year, described Treviño’s clients:

Government of Malaysia, its ruling party, or interests closely aligned with either, acting through one or more of APCO Worldwide and the David All Group (May 2008 through September 2008), and FBC Media (February 2009 through April 2011), with whom registrant had its relationship.

The Malaysian P.R. campaign generated online articles in a number of publications including Red State, National Review, Huffington Post and the Washington Times. An October 2010 article Domenech wrote for the San Francisco Examiner (“The search for moderate Muslims“) included these paragraphs:

Yet one example of a call for moderate engagement that may prove quite profitable for our relationship with the Muslim world can be found in the Malaysian example. While on a trip to New York last month, during which he called for a “global movement of moderates” to retake the center of the international conversation, I asked Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak about the experience in his country.
“We have always taken the position that Islam is an integral part of public policy in Malaysia. By doing so, we have taken the wind from the sails of the extremists. There is no contradiction between being moderate and being Muslim,” Najib told me. “Being moderate, taking the middle path, is fundamental to Islam. It is one of the pillars of Islam. Muslims have rights, but it’s also enshrined in the teachings of Islam to safeguard non-Muslims in your midst. It’s wrong for Muslims to even be unkind to non-Muslims.”
One prominent example in recent months has been the jailing of two Muslims convicted of church arson during a series of religiously motivated attacks earlier this year. They were given five year jail sentences.
“We want to show that we are fair. If you desecrate a church, or a mosque, or a temple, the punishment is and should be the same,” Najib said.

Rosie Gray’s Friday article at BuzzFeed focused on Treviño’s report and the work of his Republican-aligned “independent contractors,” resulting in extensive coverage at Democrat-leaning sites like Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow blog. However, since my Sunday report about the role of Democrat consultant Jerome Armstrong in the MalaysiaGate story — including an update Sunday night — progressive bloggers appear to have lost interest in the story.

Whereas the Friday report by Gray quickly generated an extensive thread at the Memeorandum blog aggregation site, none of the liberal blogs that wrote about Gray’s story has linked my report about the involvement of Armstrong, a former business partner of Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga. Armstrong and Moulitsas co-authored the 2006 book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics.

Armstrong, who worked on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s failed 2004 Democratic presidential primary campaign, runs the Webstrong consulting firm whose site describes its business:

WebStrong provides integrated communications solutions to help you to connect with your audience, be part of the conversation, influence the debate, build a community, and organize and empower your supporters. We help you create buzz, change public policy, win elections, find your audience, and mobilize them into taking action.
Our strategic consulting services services include public relations, reputation management, coalition building, advertising, social media management, and online advocacy for political, entertainment, sports and issue-based clients.
Our technology services include an integrated organizing platform (Netroots DNA), as well as traditional CMS, CRM, broadcast email, social media integration.

Armstrong’s firm lists numerous elected Democrats among its current or former campaign clients, including Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, as well as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, recently confirmed as U.S. Secretary of State.

The Web site of Armstrong’s consulting firm, whose client list also includes the powerful left-wing labor union SEIU, also specifically cites “political leaders in Malaysia” among its international clients.

Webstrong site describes its Malaysian busiess

Jerome Armstrong’s involvement in the MalaysiaGate deal was reported by Ben Smith at Politico in 2011, but Gray’s BuzzFeed article Friday about Treviño’s report to DOJ did not mention Armstrong’s role in the lucrative P.R. campaign, creating the impression that it was strictly a Republican operation. Not only did this inspire partisan sneering by liberal bloggers (Daily Kos said it proved the GOP “really is just an astroturf operation from top to bottom”), but it also influenced other media coverage, including a commentary on CNN’s Reliable Sources by media critic Howard Kurtz

Some American journalists it turns out have been secretly taking money from the government of Malaysia. One of them according to “Buzzfeed” is conservative commentator Joshua Trevino who was paid $390,000 over a three-year span and paid out smaller sums to other right leaning journalist was to write about Malaysia.
Now Trevino who lost his column in London’s “Guardian” for not coming clean about the payments lied to “Politico” in 2011 saying I was never on any Malaysian entity’s payroll and I resent your assumption that I was.
Trevino now tells “Buzzfeed” the payments were part of a fairly standard PR operation and when “Buzzfeed” editor Ben Smith asked him about them, quote, “I ought to have come clean with him at the time.”
The “Huffington Post” has deleted Trevino’s posts for his violation of its ethical guidelines. By the way, taking money from a foreign government without not disclosing it, is not some typical PR operation, it is outright deception.

Also, and rather ironically, the Russia Today network (reportedly “funded by the Federal budget of Russia through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation“) had a report about what it called “Paid Propaganda”:

There has still been no answer to the question I raised Sunday, “How Much Cash Did Jerome Armstrong Collect in the ‘MalaysiaGate’ Operation?” Asking that question, however, apparently prompted further reporting by Rosie Gray, who published a lengthy news article Monday afternoon at BuzzFeed:

Two of the main players in the campaign funded by the Malaysian government that placed undisclosed propaganda in the American press did not file with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an omission that lawyers say could place them in legal jeopardy. . . .
Trevino, who last week belatedly filed his own foreign agent registration, told BuzzFeed on Sunday that Armstrong was hired to be his liberal counterpart on MalysiaMatters. . . .

Click here to read the rest of the article. Gray’s account includes quotes from an e-mail Armstrong sent to Ben Smith in 2011, basically dismissing his work for the MalaysiaMatter.com site as an insignificant “temp contract,” neither secretive nor sinister, but without saying how much he got paid for doing it. The fact that Treviño says he was advised by a lawyer that he was required to file a FARA report with DOJ, however, raises the question of whether Armstrong’s failure to register as a foreign agent was a violation of federal law.

Gray writes tersely: “Armstrong did not reply to repeated requests for comment.” Thus, the merchant of “integrated communications solutions” is not communicating. Gray also reports that it appears, because David All’s project was under the aegis of APCO Worldwide, it would have been APCO’s responsibility to report its Malaysian-funded advocacy to the government under FARA. However, this does not explain the Malaysian amnesia that makes it difficult for David All to remember how much he or Armstrong were paid:

“It’s so long ago,” All said when reached by phone on Monday.  . . .
“I’m sort of gathering more information and looking into this a little bit more,” All said.

This is certainly quite convenient: Having scored a deal that enabled him to pay nearly $400,000 to Treviño and an undisclosed (but probably not insignificant) sum to his good friend Jerome Armstrong, now David All needs to gather more information and look into this in order to recall who got paid what. And while All can’t tell Rosie Gray how much cash he or his Democrat partner Armstrong collected, All was apparently willing to leave Josh Trevino, Ben Domenech and other conservatives twisting in the wind — as disgraced and humiliated scapegoats — even as the Malaysian pay-to-play operation he organized was portrayed everywhere as a strictly Republican scandal.

What next in MalaysiaGate? Well, while David All rummages through dusty file boxes full of cancelled checks and invoices in his desperate search for the impossible-to-remember dollar figures on the deal he brokered for his buddies, I expect Rosie Gray will do more of her thorough reporting. And perhaps other reporters will be able to remember the phone numbers of people on Capitol Hill and at the Department of Justice who might care to comment — hey, can’t hurt to give it a shot, right? — on the news about the work done on behalf Malaysian interests by people who (allegedly) failed to comply with the Foreign Agent Registration Act.

Is it possible that any members of congressional committees dealing with Foreign Relations are considering investigations? Is the watchful eye of Attorney General Eric Holder examining whether federal laws are being adequately enforced? Is there a snowball’s chance in hell that liberal bloggers will take further notice of MalaysiaGate now that the involvement of a Democrat political consultant is part of the story?

“Vis Numar sees all!”

 

UPDATE: I regret my previous omission of credit to former Raw Story editor Ron Brynaert, whose research turned up many of the facts about Armstrong’s consulting business, including the photo of Armstrong and Trevino in Malaysia.

 

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