Asia, Business & trade, Media wars, New in Lobbying

Kazakhstan lawyer hires ex-journalists for ‘fair and balanced coverage’ of $500 million energy suit

A law firm working for Kazakhstan has retained a Washington-based public relations giant in its $500 million legal fight with a disgruntled oil and gas investor.

APCO Worldwide this week registered as a foreign agent of the Central Asian nation’s Ministry of Justice via London law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. The three-month, $65,000 contract calls for PR work “in connection with litigation in courts in the United States and other jurisdictions.”

Herbert Smith “will seek APCO’s expertise in connection with such matters, including assessing media coverage regarding such litigation and seeking fair and balanced coverage,” the contract says. “Firm is not retaining APCO to provide ordinary public relations advice to it or client [Kazakhstan].”

Registered on the account are Jonathan “Jay” Solomon, the former chief foreign affairs for the Wall Street Journal, and Kent Jarrell, formerly of CBS. Benjamin Marchman, Alison Patch and Rosalind Reischer round out the team. APCO did not respond to a request for comment.

The contract specifies that APCO is expected to assist Norton Rose Fulbright, a law firm that is representing Kazakhstan in its legal fight with Moldovan businessman Anatolie Stati. The two parties have been battling in the courts in the United States and Europe for years over Kazakhstan’s seizure of Stati’s petroleum operations in 2010.

Kazakhstan is fighting a Swedish arbitration court’s December 2013 decision to award more than $500 million to Stati and fellow investors. In the latest twist, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on June 24 ordered Kazakhstan to present discovery in the case.

The contract with APCO is part of a multi-pronged legal and PR strategy by the Kazakh justice ministry.

Mercury Public Affairs was the first firm to register with the Department of Justice on behalf of the ministry, back in April 2018. The $30,000-per-month contract is for “lobbying, government relations, and issues management.” Mercury acts as a subcontractor to Los Angeles-based law firm Latham & Watkins on the account.

Latham itself only registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) more than a year later, in September 2019. At the time it disclosed an April 2019 contract to represent the ministry “in connection with its interactions with United States and European state authorities, and other international organizations, regarding international human rights law cases and proceedings.”

In May 2018, the ministry hired Greenberg Traurig for $2 million through December 2018 for “advice and counsel related to foreign relations issues.” The contract was renewed in 2019 for $500,000, then extended for another year in January 2020 for $850,000.

Greenberg notably helped relaunch a US-Kazakhstan Congressional Caucuscontacting the offices of Reps. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, and Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., dozens of times in the weeks before they launched the group in November 2019.

Finally, in December 2019, the ministry hired RJI Capital Corporation of Washington for a flat fee of $100,000 to develop a congressional lobbying strategy, followed by a year-long, $3 million contract in February. Hutton-Transcon Joint Venture registered as an RJI subcontractor for $50,000 per month a week later. The fee was increased to $60,000 a month later.