money

By Laurel Rosenhall
lrosenhall@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 – 12:00 am

Before his 2009 inauguration, newly elected President Barack Obama made a public pledge not to accept money for the celebration from representatives of foreign interests.

That didn’t stop a top partner at California Strategies, one of Sacramento’s premier public affairs firms, and his wife from donating big dollars. The firm had taken an exiled Arab sheik on as a client just before the 2008 election and registered with the federal government as a foreign agent, designating partner Jason Kinney as the one in charge of a publicity campaign on the sheik’s behalf.

But Kinney himself did not register as required, and within months he and his wife gave $52,000 for the inauguration, according to data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. In total, the records show, two California Strategies partners, one associate and one spouse gave a combined $158,000 to the committee planning Obama’s inaugural festivities.

The episode marked another influence-wielding misstep for the prominent firm better known for its work within California. In September, the state’s political watchdog agency fined the firm and three of its partners – including Kinney – for hiding some of their business from public view by not registering with the state as lobbyists.

Kinney declined to respond to questions from The Sacramento Bee. Firm spokesman Michael Bustamante said the firm sought to follow the rules regarding foreign agent registration, and that those who attended the inauguration weren’t there to benefit the sheik.

“This was a historic inaugural and there were a number of people who wanted to participate because they wanted to witness history,” Bustamante said. “That was the extent of the thinking.”

Kinney supported Hillary Clinton in the primary and chaired an independent expenditure committee that ran negative ads against Obama.

Once elected, Obama pledged an inaugural celebration that would “change business as usual in Washington,” and banned contributions from federal lobbyists, non-U.S. citizens and Americans registered as agents of foreign governments.

Still, the Kinneys traveled to Washington for the event, where billboards for Sheik Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi congratulated the new president. The sheik also was there.

“A few minutes ago, Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States. I and my family were honored to be just a short distance from him,” the sheik wrote on Jan. 20, 2009, according to an archive of his blog.

A footnote on the blog says, “These materials are distributed by California Strategies on behalf of His Highness Sheik Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi…”

The firm was brought on to introduce the sheik to U.S. government officials and mount a public affairs strategy that cast him as an ally of the United States in his effort to regain power in an obscure region known as Ras al-Khaimah. The monarchy, one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates, is home to roughly 200,000 people, and at 650 square miles, is smaller than Sacramento County.

As Ras al-Khaimah’s crown prince, Sheik Khalid had been in line to become its next ruler until 2003 when his father gave that honor to another son. Sheik Khalid left Ras al-Khaimah in exile, splitting his time for the next few years between the neighboring country of Oman and London, according to The Guardian, a British newspaper.

Enter California Strategies.

The sheik brought the firm on in 2008 to raise his international profile as his father, already frail, entered his 90s. Kinney’s campaign portrayed leadership by the other son, Sheik Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, as a security risk to the United States because of his alleged ties to Iran, and cast Sheik Khalid as more in line with U.S. values by promoting his interest in clean energy and women’s rights.

“The strategy will possibly involve a media component as well as facilitating introductions with U.S. government officials, foreign policy specialists and business leaders,” said the firm’s 2008 foreign agent filing with the federal government.

A ‘bloodless coup’

Over the next two years, Sheik Khalid, through California Strategies, spent $3.08 million on the campaign, including payments to lobbyists, advertisers, bloggers, photographers and highly connected Democratic consultants. His message appeared on billboards in Washington, D.C., on bus ads in New York City and on a Twitter feed, where the sheik described meetings with former Vice President Al Gore and retired Army General Wesley Clark. The sheik was welcomed with a special message on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ scoreboard.

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