An allegation that Bob Livingston, a congressman-turned-lobbyist, sought to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine raises questions about whether he violated a federal law that requires lobbyists to disclose their work for foreign clients.
Livingston, a former high-ranking House member who heads an influential Washington lobbying firm, repeatedly called Foreign Service Officer Catherine Croft and pressed for the ouster of the ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, Croft told impeachment investigators last week.
In Croft’s written statement, she said Livingston told her that Yovanovitch – now a key figure in impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump – was an “Obama holdover” associated with George Soros, the billionaire investor, philanthropist, Democratic donor, and Trump critic.
“It was not clear to me at the time – or now – at whose direction or at whose expense Mr. Livingston was seeking the removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch,” said Croft, who said she documented the calls and told her superiors about them.
Livingston probably should have disclosed whether he was paid by two Ukraine-linked clients or any other foreigner to seek Yovanovitch’s removal, two legal experts on the Foreign Agents Registration Act told USA TODAY.
But Livingston said he made the calls as a “concerned American citizen,” not as a lobbyist.
His clients included a coalition of Ukrainian steel companies and an obscure company created to support Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister of Ukraine.
If Livingston was working for Ukrainian clients he disclosed, “he should have reported those contacts … no question about that,” said Joseph Sandler, an expert on the law that governs U.S. lobbying for foreign clients. Sandler is a partner at the Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock law firm in Washington, D.C., and a former general counsel for the Democratic National Committee.
“If it was for another foreign entity, then he needed to register for them” and disclose the lobbying, Sandler said.
Matthew Sanderson, another expert on lobbying for foreign clients and a member of the Caplin & Drysdale law firm in Washington, D.C., said Livingston’s calls about Yovanovitch “should be disclosed in some fashion.”
Livingston, in telephone interviews with USA TODAY, acknowledged making two calls to Croft in which he urged that Yovanovitch be fired. He said he conveyed similar messages to the White House and the National Security Council.
However, Livingston said he didn’t make those calls as a paid lobbyist. “I made direct calls as a concerned American citizen … to tell them they had a problem,” he said. That means he didn’t have to file any disclosures, he said.
Livingston said he spoke up after he heard complaints about Yovanovitch from “Ukrainian citizens and ex-pats.” He declined to identify those people or disclose whether they were present or former Ukrainian government officials. He also declined to discuss the substance of their complaints.
Sanderson said it doesn’t seem plausible that Livingston had acted on his own and not on behalf of a client.
“I think it strains credulity to say he did it on his own behalf as an American citizen,” said Sanderson.
He advises corporations, political committees and other clients about complex laws that regulate political activity. He has also served as a counsel for several well-known Republicans, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mitt Romney of Utah, outgoing Energy Secretary and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.
“Lobbyists and whoever interacts with the government only have so many ‘asks’ that you can particularly makeand so many issues you can press for at one time,” said Sanderson.
Livingston’s explanation would not be credible if he had any business relationships with those he said had complained to him about Yovanovitch, Sanderson added.
While insisting he complied with the law, Livingston said his company, The Livingston Group, is known as one of the best in Washington for complying with regulations on lobbying for foreign clients.
Lobbyists must disclose when they’re working for foreign clients
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, enacted in 1938, was designed to shine a light on U.S. lobbyists pressing federal officials and agencies for causes on behalf of foreign clients or governments.
The law requires lobbyists who represent foreign clients and their causes in the U.S. to file disclosures describing the issues and any emails, phone calls and meetings with U.S. officials. The filings are often specific, describing who attended a meeting and the topics that were discussed.
That law played a key role in the criminal conviction of Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager. Among other things, he was convicted of failing to register as an agent of the Ukrainian government and its former president.
Livingston, Giuliani pushed to fire Ukrainian ambassador
Livingston’s efforts to oust Yovanovitch occurred amid similar efforts by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and ex-federal prosecutor who’s now Trump’s personal lawyer.
The U.S. Department of State recalled Yovanovitch from her post in May after pressure from Trump. Her removal, though legally within the authority of any U.S. president, has become a central thread in the presidential impeachment inquiry.
The proceedings focus on whether Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine unless officials there investigated business dealings of the family of former Vice President Joe Biden,a potential presidential challenger to Trump in 2020. Trump also sought an investigation into a theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. No definitive evidence has emerged to support either allegation.
Both Giuliani and Livingston have done business in Ukraine or with firms and people tied to the country. Some of their clients and business relationships came from similar circles.
However, there are key differences.
Giuliani has said he performed some of his work related to Ukraine as an attorney representing Trump. He said the foreign-agent law doesn’t apply to his legal activity for the President.
“The investigation I conducted concerning 2016 Ukrainian collusion and corruption, was done solely as a defense attorney to defend my client against false charges,” Giuliani tweeted on Wednesday, announcing that he has hired three attorneys to represent him in a federal investigation.
The Wall Street Journal reported in October that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are examining Giuliani’s business in Ukraine and pursuing information about his dealings with two Soviet-born associates who helped him seek damaging information in Ukraine on Biden’s family.
The associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, have been indicted in a U.S. campaign finance conspiracy case, charged with funneling foreign money to U.S. politicians and campaign committees. They and two co-defendants have pleaded not guilty.
USA TODAY reported in October that U.S. counterintelligence agents have been investigating Giuliani’s dealings with Parnas and Fruman since at least early 2019.
Giuliani said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month that he viewed Yovanovitch as an obstacle to U.S. efforts to press Ukraine for an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, a former board member of a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma Holdings.
Livingston has disclosed two Ukrainian clients
Livingston said he acted alone in passing on complaints about Yovanovitch, not in coordination with Giuliani — whom he said he has not seen in about three years.
According to FARA disclosures, Livingston’s company lobbied in Washington on behalf of two Ukrainian clientsin 2017 and 2018.
One was the Association of Enterprises Ukrmetalurgprom,a coalition of Ukrainian companies that sought exemptions from Trump administration tariffs on imported steel. The firms included Metinvest Group, controlled by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov; Interpipe, the firm of the billionaire Victor Pinchuk; and Ferrexpo, controlled by Kostyantyn Zhevag, according to a report by the Kyiv Post. The English-language newspaper that first reported some details of Livingston’s lobbying.
Croft, the Foreign Service officer, was among the Washington officials Livingston’s firm contacted on behalf of the Ukrainian group. According to a FARA filing, the firm contacted her in May 2018 by phone and in a followup email regarding Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel imports.
Livingston’s company also sought meetings with Washington officials for Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine, under a contract with a recently-formed Maryland firm with opaque funding sources, the filings also show.
Tymoshenko campaigned for Ukraine’s presidency earlier this year but lost.
On July 6, 2018, Livingston wrote to Washington officials and others and described Tymoshenko as “best suited to lead Ukraine in its ongoing battle with Russian military and economic aggression.”
That same day, Livingston’s company reported a yearlong, $50,000-per-month agreement to represent Innovative Technology & Business Consulting LLC. However, the disclosure contained no references to Tymoshenko.
Public records show the company, also known as ITBC, was founded in Maryland in May 2018. Its registered agent was a man named Sergei Krasnitski, who came from the same part of Ukraine as Tymoshenko, according to the Kyiv Post.
When the paper contacted Krasnitski, he said in Russian, “I don’t know what I can tell you,” and hung up, the news organization reported.
Livingston told the newspaper ITBC was “an American company comprised of a number of people concerned about the future of Ukraine, especially in these days of accelerating Russian aggression.”
The lobbyist said his firm would facilitate visits to the U.S. “by various current and/or potential Ukrainian officials.”
That happened in December 2018, when Livingston’s company arranged meetings in Washington between Tymoshenko and U.S. officials. The sessions included a meeting between Tymoshenko and Giuliani, FARA disclosures show.
That meeting was coordinated by Bob McEwen, a former Republican House member from Ohio who worked as a paid consultant for Livingston’s firm, a FARA filing shows.
A statement at the time by Tymoshenko’s Fatherland political party said the meeting was focused on Ukraine’s war with Russia and the sale of U.S. weapons “to counter Russian aggression,” BuzzFeed News reported earlier this week.
However, former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko asserted in that report that the meeting concluded with Giuliani inviting Tymoshenko to discuss Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma Holdings.
BuzzFeed reported that former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko asserted that it concluded with Giuliani inviting Tymoshenko to discuss Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma Holdings.
The Livingston Group and McEwen have continued to boost Tymoshenko this year as she campaigned for another term as Ukraine’s prime minister. A few days before the parliamentary election in July, the Western Journal, a conservative media outlet, published an op-ed with McEwen’s byline arguing she would be the best person to become Ukraine’s prime minister.
“Put simply,” McEwen wrote, “there is no one in Ukraine who can match Yulia Tymoshenko in both experience and global connections.”
McEwen did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Lobbyist questions raised about Giuliani’s work in Ukraine
Giuliani’s business ties to Ukraine stretch back to at least 2008, when he announced one of his companies would advise a former boxing champion who was running to be mayor of the capital city of Kyiv.
In 2017, about a year before Trump tapped Giuliani as his personal attorney, Giuliani Safety & Security began working for the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine. Press releases at the time described the firm as a consultant for Kharkiv’s emergency response and security issues.
Pavel Fuks, the wealthy Russian-Ukrainian developer who hired Giuliani’s firm, described him as a “lobbyist” for the city and for Ukraine.
That year Giuliani gave a speech in Kyiv for the foundation of Victor Pinchuk, the billionaire behind the Ukrainian metal company Interpipe – one of the companies that is part of the business coalition Livingston represented.
Pinchuk was a major contributor to Trump’s charitable foundation.
Giuliani a foreign agent?:Trump-Ukraine scandal puts spotlight on Rudy Giuliani’s business ties. Is he a ‘foreign agent’?
Capital Hill Democrats have pushed for investigations into why Giuliani did not file FARA disclosures of his efforts for Trump and his business in Ukraine. One expert in foreign lobbying laws told USA TODAY in October that a government review would make sense.
“This would seem to be a case that would be ripe for the DOJ to at least ask questions,” said Josh Rosenstein, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who advises clients on FARA.
Saying he has nothing to hide, Livingston said he had not been contacted by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York about the Giuliani investigation.
“What Giuliani has done is his business,” Livingston said. “All of this is about nothing. I’m not going to be indicted. There is nothing there. I don’t have anything to be worried about. OK?
“If the Southern District of New York has any questions,” he said, “I’m happy to talk to them.”
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Kristine Phillips