The Rajapakasa regime has paid out colossal amounts to American lobbyists, legal and public relations companies between 2008 and 2014 via the Central Bank, bypassing the Ministry of External Affairs, Cabinet, Parliament and the diplomatic mission in Washington,
According to an article written by Namini Wijedasa for the Sunday Times on September 13th numerous other payments were made without public oversight, on the instructions of a privileged clique that held itself above supervision.
The Sunday Times article points out that the figures disclosed by them in this regards were obtained after extensive research.
The report suggests that questions must now be asked of officials who authorised such outflows, particularly the million dollar payments channeled through the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) between May and November 2014.
Also in a startling exposure, the article says that some companies in the US had declared far smaller amounts under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) than they had received from Sri Lanka.
Also the report says that additionally, disbursements have been made through the Washington Embassy while Jaliya Wickramasuriya, a cousin of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was Ambassador.
According to available records at the foreign ministry, a total of US$ 2,885,566.37 was doled out in installments to five companies between February 2009 and May 2014. The Ministry has calculated this amount as Rs. 339,552,504.08.
But according to the “Sunday Times” revelation this is only a fraction of what was actually spent as some records are simply not available at the Embassy or at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The article goes on to say that “for instance, between 2011 and 2013, the company Girgenti Sienna Brielle received US$ 115,993.33 (which is Rs. 16,146,851.50 at prevailing rates) in payments. Those receipts were not provided to us by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” the article adds.
It adds “some firms have charged expenses – such as communication, subsistence, travel and transportation – separately. There is no breakdown for these amounts in the ledgers of the Sri Lanka mission in Washington. Often, figures cited by companies in official FARA filings do not correspond with records maintained (if at all) by the Sri Lankan Government”.
Also the Sunday Times discloses that between 2009 and 2013, Patton Boggs LLP was issued several payments of US$ 105,000 each for lobbying and public relations work.
“In one official FARA filing made in February 2011, it also claims to have received US$ 12,551.30 (Rs. 1,747,203.72) for expenses such as long-distance and mobile phone calls, internal transport, subsistence and duplication. It is not clear whether such sundries were billed separately throughout the contract”
The article says that in addition Patton Boggs was compensated, too, for legal advice and this pertained mostly to litigation filed in the US Federal Court in Washington, DC, under the caption Kasippillai Manoharan et al v. Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa.
Ragihar, Dr Manoharan’s son, was one of five students killed during a Special Task Force (STF) raid on the Trincomalee seafront in 2006. The case was eventually dismissed after the Obama administration granted immunity to the then President Rajapaksa, the article points out.
The primary counsel for Mr Rajapaksa in the Manoharan case was Mitchell R. Berger, a senior lawyer who charged US$ 885 per hour. “In addition to our fees for legal services, we also charge separately for certain costs and expenses as described in the enclosed statements,” Berger notifies Ambassador Wickramasuriya, in correspondence seen by the Sunday Times.
The advance retainer deposit the article points out was US$ 250,000 and the agreement with Patton Boggs was first signed in 2008.
One of the Associates at Patton Boggs LLP according to the article was Vinoda Basnayake a close friend of Sajin de Vass Gunawardena who was unofficially, President Rajapaksa’s point man and dealmaker but officially, the Monitoring MP to the Ministry of External Affairs.
Providing more light on the above revelation the article says in 2014, Mr Basnanayake joined another company called Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP and quickly secured millions of dollars worth of Sri Lankan business for them.
The Sunday Times says that the trail of those payments are still being investigated.
The other companies paid through the Sri Lankan Embassy are Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, Inc (for lobbying and PR work); Emmanuel N. Emprass (legal fees); Stephen J Hedges (research and PR work); and the Majority Group LLC (simply, consulting fee).
During the same period, Thompson Advisory Group and a company called Levick Strategic Communications, LLC, were also hired but paid directly through the CBSL where the Payment records or invoices the article says could not be traced locally.
However, there is a FARA filing for a company called Liberty International Group according to the report where the filing shows that, between September-November 2014, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka paid Liberty US$ 180,000 (Rs. 25,056,900) in fees.
On behalf of the CBSL, Liberty has paid Levick Strategic Communications and two television stations US$ 210,000 (Rs. 29,233,050) for services such as “representation support”, “media buy” and “unpublished draft materials”. The total is US$ 600,000 (Rs. 83,523,000) says the Sunday Times report while adding that the trails are mindboggling.
In a nutshell the report says a few individuals in the previous Government have, therefore, hired nearly twenty lobbying, legal and public relations firms which nearly were all in the US — the country with which the Rajapaksa regime ended up having its worst relations.
Some companies were also hired in Britain and New Delhi.
The other companies in America it points out were Girgenti, Sienna Brielle; Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck; Burson-Marsteller LLC; R&R Partners Inc; Beltway Government Strategies Inc; Bell Pottinger Communications Ltd; MSLGROUP Americas Inc; Hedges Strategies; Madison Group LLC; Vigilant Worldwide Communications; and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP.
According to the article some of the tasks carried out by these professionals appear-on the surface, at least-to be perfectly within the capabilities of adequately trained local staff.
It says that Washington, one of the country’s most crucial diplomatic stations, was consistently staffed by non-professionals and political appointees with one of them being the other long-serving Thanuja Usliyanage, stepson of Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to President Rajapaksa.
Pointing out to some of these issues which are within the grasp of well-trained staff the report says that services provided by the numerous firms retained by Sri Lanka include making phone calls; fixing meetings with senators and representatives; organising “general discussions”; gathering “general impressions” of Sri Lanka; writing and exchanging emails; examining the “history of issues” between the US and Sri Lanka and so on.
The report points out that one FARA filing shows that on July 25, 2008, two members of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS) travelled to Colombo and held a meeting with the US Ambassador in Colombo — Robert Blake, at the time — about the “views of the US Embassy in Sri Lanka towards current events in the country.
In a sarcastic manner the article adds “this must have been a doubly crucial meeting, given that the Ministry of External Affairs (as it was then called) is also situated in Colombo and could have secured easy access to Ambassador Blake”.
However, it also says that BHFS has also gained some useful space in international media for the Sri Lankan Government, such as a Wall Street Journal editorial and “expanded coverage of Sri Lanka on the official State Department website”. Other services include phone calls to Ambassador Robert Blake and “attempts to schedule meetings between respective candidates and officials from the Government of Sri Lanka”.
Meanwhile Stephen J Hedges has invoiced the Sri Lankan Embassy for US$ 11,500 for research services rendered into possible LTTE activities in the US.
Liberty International Group says its contract covers “outreach to Members and staff of the US House of Representatives and United States Senate regarding increasing FY (foreign year) 20-16 State, Foreign Operations, and related program operations appropriations for the benefit of Sri Lanka”.
In a note which depicts the futility of these efforts the Sunday Times says “the story of these payments becomes even more bizarre after Ambassador Wickramasuriya leaves the Washington mission (after repeated extensions run out). The incoming Head of Mission, Prasad Kariyawasam, a veteran of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, halted all disbursements to lobbyists and public relations companies. He took over diplomatic assignments and has, by now, developed robust ties with US politicians”.
In another startling revelation the Sunday Times says that instead of giving up his addition to lobbyists, however, Sajin Vass Gunawardena had started funnelling even more money out through the CBSL. “That is how the payments to an American influence peddler called Imaad Zuberi (reported in the Sunday Times of August 30, 2015) took place. This newspaper obtained documentary proof of money transfers, not only to a company that Mr Zuberi claimed to own, but to his personal bank account”.
A total of US$ 6.5 million (Rs. 872,806,569, at prevailing rates) was released by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka between May 9 and September 10, 2014. None of it went through the prescribed channels. The money was paid on the written instructions of Vass Gunawardena. Transactions were recommended by Weeratunga and approved by Ajith Nivard Cabraal, then Governor of the CBSL. While some of the monies were tracked, the bulk of it remained unaccounted for, the report discloses.