Morocco’s biggest company has launched a massive lobbying and public relations campaign to stave off threatened tariffs and rebuild its presence in Washington.
Over the past week the US subsidiary of the OCP Group and no fewer than four US firms have registered with the US Department of Justice as foreign agents of the phosphate mining behemoth. Phosphate is a key ingredient in fertilizer.
On its face the effort aims simply to push back against a complaint from a US competitor that the North African country unfairly subsidizes its phosphate industry. But some of the contracts appear to go far beyond responding to the ongoing Commerce Department investigation, calling for outreach to the “next generation” of congressional leaders and meetings with both the Donald Trump administration and the campaign of his rival Joe Biden.
“This is much broader than OCP,” said Jean AbiNader, a former lobbyist for Morocco via the Moroccan American Center for Policy. “This is part of Morocco’s effort to rebuild its friendship network in the United States — its network of contacts and influences.”
OCP North America, the New York-based subsidiary of the 94% state-owned OCP Group (formerly Office Cherifien des Phosphates), kicked things off last week when it disclosed an Oct. 5 letter from its headquarters in Casablanca tasking it with launching a lobbying and public relations campaign to defend against the threat of countervailing duties. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The Mosaic Company, a Tampa-based rival, filed a complaint with the US Department of Commerce and the US International Trade Commission in June. It accuses Morocco and Russia of subsidizing their phosphate fertilizer industry through various means including “artificially cheap debt,” “specific tax breaks” and “the provision of phosphate rock mining rights on below-market terms.” OCP denies receiving any subsidies.
Following OCP North America’s registration, four US firms have signed on to help with the effort:
Type of work
Oct. 6, 2020 – March 31, 2021
Covington & Burling
Legal / lobbying
Started Oct. 7
Partner Bruce Wilson
Cornerstone Government Affairs
Oct. 1, 2020 – Sept. 30, 2021
Started Aug. 1
Covington & Burling was already representing OCP in the Mosaic case but registered as a foreign agent after adding “legislative and executive department messaging and communication strategies” to its task list. Cornerstone Government Affairs is also lobbying, promising to:
- Reach out to “Democratic and Republican leadership in the House and Senate as well as the next generation of House and Senate leadership, and future committee chairs” with the goal of looking for “champions for OCP NA’s priorities”;
- Contact members on key committees of jurisdiction regarding trade matters and U.S. phosphate use; and
- Facilitate meetings and “enhance communications” with the Donald Trump administration and former Vice President Joe Biden‘s campaign “in order to best position OCP Group for the future.”
Meanwhile St. Louis public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard will launch an “online grassroots campaign” and build a “microsite campaign hub” through which people can contact their legislators. The firm says it will particularly target agricultural trade media outlets “to support communication to grower audiences.” Fleishman-Hillard has also subcontracted OCP-related work to several employees from VOX Global, a partner agency under the umbrella of parent company Omnicom.
Also joining the effort is Thomas Forsythe, a former vice-president of global communications for General Mills who now runs CCO Communications in Minneapolis. His disclosure form reveals that he had been talking to OCP North America as early as August about a potential media campaign that was not pursued at the time.
“This is much broader than OCP. This is part of Morocco’s effort to rebuild its friendship network in the United States — its network of contacts and influences.”Jean AbiNader
Mosaic has its own bevvy of lobby firms: Squire Patton Boggs, Ballard Partners, Dawson & Associates and the Washington Tax & Public Policy Group. It also spent $730,000 on in-house lobbying in the first half of 2020, including on its duties case.
OCP is the world’s largest exporter of raw phosphate, with 9.9 million tons in 2019. The company told Reuters it could end its US exports, which amounted to $729 million last year, if duties are imposed.
But the company’s interests in good relations with Washington go far beyond the threat of tariffs.
OCP is Morocco’s largest employer and its biggest business group, reporting $5.6 billion in revenues last year. It has played a key role in making Morocco a top investor across Africa and funds the Policy Center for the New South (formerly OCP Policy Center), a think tank in Rabat focused on African economic and social development.
It also has sole access to more than 70% of the world’s phosphate reserves, partly situated in the disputed Western Sahara. Both the company and the government of Morocco have long lobbied Washington to support their case for autonomy rather than an independence referendum in the region.
“OCP is much more than just a company,” AbiNader told Foreign Lobby Report. “It’s a center for thinking about and acting on where North Africa should be going in the next generation.”
Update: This post was updated at 9:45 a.m. on Oct. 15 with new information about VOX Global subcontractors working for OCP.