Yes, and a top Menendez advisor and a top Christie advisor too. What are the people who guide the political lives of the state's top elected officials doing in a firm that works for an Islamist strongman like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey?
Once upon a time, there were campaign managers who came up through the ranks alongside the politicians whose careers they helped to manage. In Great Britain, they call them election "agents" and this is how they once operated in this country too -- wedded to the ups and downs of a particular political personality, often finding a job in the bureaucracy in between campaigns.
From these manager/agents came the first campaign consultants. Regional or statewide at first, but with the centralizing power of the national committees and national money there soon came to be the "national" consultant -- recommended by one of the party committees or put in place by them. We recall a list, circa 1994, that the NRCC (National Republican Congressional Committee) gave out, with the names of those "recommended" media consultants and pollsters on it. There were about a dozen names in all.
But as more money washed into DC and was funneled into campaigns, that changed. Consultants proliferated and firms became larger. Following the money, a few either merged with or morphed into public relations and lobbying (government relations) operations. Why not? Corporations paid big for access to politicians and there is nobody politicians love more than the person who got them elected.
It was only a matter of time that things went global. And that is how three New Jersey political operatives became members of an international firm representing the interests of the Turkish government. This firm itself is a subsidiary of an even larger international firm that handles the image-making for Russian President Vladimir Putin, receiving credit for, among other accomplishments, getting Putin's face on the cover of Time magazine -- as the "Person of the Year" for 2007.
The three are Mo Butler, United States Senator Cory Booker's campaign consultant, former chief of staff, and "longtime advisor"; Michael Soliman, United States Senator and former Chairman of the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations Robert Menendez's political advisor and former State Director; and Michael DuHaime, Governor Chris Christie's campaign consultant and someone who has worked on several Republican presidential campaigns. Two Democrats and a Republican.
Their firm is called Mercury Public Affairs. Began in 1999 as a decidedly Republican shop with connections to the RNC and politicians like John McCain and Mitt Romney, around 2013 it embarked on a mission to "diversify" -- meaning making the firm "more bipartisan and full-service." Mike DuHaime joined the firm in 2009, first as a "managing director" but swiftly rising to partner. Michael Soliman joined Mercury in 2013 and became a partner this year. Mo Butler joined as a "managing director" earlier this year. Mercury Public Affairs has 10 partners and 160 employees. Omnicom purchased Mercury in 2003.
Mercury Public Affairs has 18 offices worldwide -- including London; Mexico City; Washington, DC; New York; and Westfield, New Jersey. The New Jersey offices (a satellite operates out of Trenton) of Mercury are the haunt of Messrs. DuHaime, Soliman, Butler, and other connected operatives like "seasoned lobbyist" Connor Fennessy, newspaperman Darryl Isherwood (former top political reporter for the Star-Ledger and editor of PolitickerNJ), and "Christie campaign vet" Mark Mowers. Mowers, who testified before the Legislature's BridgeGate inquiry, has recently joined the Trump campaign.
In January 2015, Michael Soliman registered with the United States Justice Department, pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as a person representing the Embassy of the State of Qatar. You must have read about Qatar in the news...Amnesty International has accused Qatar of being complicit in human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Yes, slavery. In fact, in March of this year, the United Nations gave Qatar one year "to end migrant worker slavery" or face an international investigation.
Qatar is just one of freedom's garden spots represented by Mercury. Remember the controversy in Uganda, when the President of that country decided that homosexuality was a crime that should be punishable by death? Well, the law he wanted passed was "moderated" in December 2013, substituting life imprisonment for the death penalty. In 2015, Mercury was brought on to provide public relations, lobbying, and media monitoring services with regards to the Office of the President and the Ugandan government in general on subjects beginning with "human rights" and ending with "good governance." For which the contract calls for Mercury to be compensated at the rate of $50,000 per month, with $150,000 up front.
Mercury also represents individuals. Folks like Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi, who in 2003 led an anti-American demonstration in which he personally burned an American flag. For its work, Mercury pocketed a $30,000 monthly retainer, plus expenses.
In January 2016, Mercury Public Affairs partner Morris Reid negotiated a contract with Amsterdam & Partners, an international law firm with offices in London and Washington, DC. The document is marked "confidential and privileged" but is public information under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In August of last year, Amsterdam & Partners signed a contract with the Turkish Ambassador to the United States to provide legal services related to a "matter of importance" to the embassy. The government of Turkey pays Amsterdam a retainer of $50,000 a month.
While the contract stipulates that the greatest security and confidentiality be observed, under the terms of the contract between Amsterdam and Turkey, third parties may be hired "as the Firm and the Client agree in writing are necessary to further the Engagement." And so, in March of 2016, Amsterdam hired Mercury to perform work on behalf of the Turkish government for $20,000 a month -- above and beyond what was being paid to Amsterdam by Turkey. It is in the contract between Amsterdam & Partners and Mercury Public Affairs that we learn what all this cloak and dagger is in aid of:
The Amsterdam-Mercury contract references an "investigation into Fethullah Gulen and his organization in the United States." So who is Fethullah Gulen?
Gulen has been in the news since the attempted coup in Turkey last week. Gulen is a religious leader from Turkey, and a one-time political ally of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is the increasingly authoritarian and Islamist President of Turkey. He has been repeatedly in the news for purging the judiciary, jailing journalists who write unflattering reports, and successfully intimidating the opposition. Erdogan had a law passed to allow the government to ban websites and he has promised to "rip out the roots" of Twitter. He has even attempted to censor speech in other nations, last year demanding that Germany prosecute a poet who had written some verse critical of Erdogan.
Erdogan and Gulen had a falling out over allegations of political corruption by Erdogan in 2013. Gulen's books were banned. First, he was indicted on charges that a Turkish judge threw out, but then was indicted a few months later for treasonable offenses that carried the death penalty. Gulen fled Turkey, came to the United States, and was convicted in absentia. According to Wikipedia, Gulen was one of the first Muslim leaders to condemn the attacks on September 11, 2001, writing a "condemnation article" in the Washington Post, the next day. He wrote: "A Muslim cannot be a terrorist, nor can a terrorist be a true Muslim."
Gülen teaches a Hanafi version of Islam, deriving from Sunni Muslim scholar Said Nursi's teachings. Gülen has stated that he believes in science, interfaith dialogue among the People of the Book, and multi-party democracy. He has initiated such dialogue with the Vatican and some Jewish organizations.
Gülen is actively involved in the societal debate concerning the future of the Turkish state, and Islam in the modern world. He has been described in the English-language media as an imam "who promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasises altruism, hard work and education" and as "one of the world's most important Muslim figures."
The government of Turkish President Erdogan has attempted to extradite Gulen back to Turkey to face punishment, but the government of the United States hasn't cooperated. In the hours after the coup attempt, Erdogan was quick to blame Gulen, while Gulen put forward the theory that Erdogan had staged the coup himself in order to consolidate power.
The Associated Press identified Amsterdam & Partners (the firm Mercury is working for) as "lawyer(s) for the Turkish government" and quoted Robert Amsterdam: "There are indications of direct involvement (in the coup attempt) by Fethullah Gulen." Amsterdam added that he and his firm "have attempted repeatedly to warn the U.S. government of the threat posed (by Gulen)." Amsterdam said that "according to Turkish intelligence sources, there are signs that Gulen is working closely with certain members of military leadership against the elected civilian government."
Why does Mercury want to be a part of extraditing a moderate cleric to satisfy the rage of an Islamist dictator? The close relationships with powerful figures in American politics that many of Mercury's partners and employees enjoy is a matter for deep concern. Given who their clients are and the relationship they have with them, shouldn't a client like Turkey's Erdogan be out-of-bounds?
Wouldn't it be better if American political consultants stuck with helping to elect the best candidates to serve the American people? With all this money from foreign powers floating around, at what point does a political advisor to a United States Senator and prospective candidate for Vice President, a Governor with national aspirations, or the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, find himself in an existential conflict of interest?