Advocacy, Human rights, New in Lobbying

Lobbyist for Assange pardon scored almost $30 million in foreign contracts under Trump

Robert Stryk‘s new contract to seek a presidential pardon for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange caps one of the most dramatic foreign lobbying stories of the Donald Trump era.

An Oregon winery owner with limited political experience, Stryk parlayed an unpaid role as a West Coast adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign into a lucrative business representing a dizzying array of often controversial foreign clients under a president who famously promised to “drain the swamp”. A Foreign Lobby Report review (see chart below) of lobbying records shows his Sonoran Policy Group disclosed some $16.8 million in payments from two dozen foreign clients through June 2020, with another $12 million in new contracts lined up.

Stryk’s latest endeavor is as a pro bono agent for Blueprint for Free Speech, an Australian nonprofit advocating for media freedom that launched an international campaign to pardon Assange this week. The group’s agreement with Stryk’s firm was first reported by The New York Times over the weekend and published on the US Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) web site today. Stryk himself is registered as an agent on the account along with Sonoran CEO Christian Bourge.

The contract calls on Sonoran, which recently changed its name to Stryk Global Diplomacy, to facilitate meetings with Trump and President-elect Joe Biden “for the purpose of seeking a presidential pardon” for Assange, who is an Australian citizen. The US Justice Department charged Assange with espionage in 2019 for allegedly conspiring to obtain and release classified information in 2010 and is seeking his extradition from the United Kingdom, where he has been held in a London jail for the past 18 months.

Neither Stryk nor Bourge returned requests for comment. Stryk told the Times that the fight for Assange’s release was not a partisan issue and would continue under Biden, who as vice-president called the WikiLeaks founder a “high-tech terrorist.”

Stryk’s involvement in foreign lobbying began when he helped connect the prime minister of New Zealand with Trump shortly after election night in 2016. The New Zealand Embassy in Washington became Sonoran’s first foreign client, soon followed by other foreign sovereigns including the Embassy of Kenya, which remains a client.

Sonoran struck its first major payday in May 2017, when it signed a $5.4 million deal with the Saudi Interior Ministry. That contract ended within weeks after a royal reshuffling, with Sonoran appearing to keep the entire payment despite providing no actual lobbying services, according to its lobbying disclosures.

The following year saw the firm pick up several controversial clients. In 2018 Sonoran earned $1.5 million from Israeli firm Mer Security and Communications Systems, a security contractor to the government of then-President Joseph Kabila that launched a massive lobbying effort to help the Democratic Republic of the Congo avoid US sanctions. Sonoran also lobbied that year for a Serbian arms dealer sanctioned for selling weapons to Liberia.

The firm saw an exodus of clients and employees halfway through Trump’s term, with six registered agents leaving the firm by October 2019, leaving only Stryk and Bourge. Sonoran started taking on more controversial clients at the end of that year.

In December 2019, the firm signed on a holding company owned by Africa’s richest woman, Isabel dos Santos, a former president’s daughter who lives in exile in Portugal amid corruption allegations in her native Angola. When the firm picked up Venezuela Attorney General Reinaldo Munoz Pedroza for $2 million in early 2020, one of its former lobbyists decided he couldn’t stay quiet.

“This is what happens when you get desperate for money,” Andrew Nehring wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted. “You take money from Maduro’s brutal regime to get him off lists he deserves/should be on.”

As it happens, Sonoran’s work as a subcontractor on the Pedroza account ended almost as soon as it started when law firm Foler and Lardner dropped the Venezuelan official under intense political pressure in Washington. As with the Saudi interior ministry, there is no evidence Sonoran returned its $2 million payday.

Lucrative contracts continued to roll in in 2020. In May the firm signed a $2 million with a Pakistani businessman seeking the release of imprisoned Saudi prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. And last summer the firm signed a $10 million contract on behalf of Ali Haddad, an Algerian businessman imprisoned on corruption charges (Algerian authorities opened an investigation into that lobbying contract in September).

Since then Sonoran has taken steps to continue its lucrative foreign lobbying business under a new administration.

The firm has partnered with Rational 360 to help represent El Salvador’s State Intelligence Agency and scout for new foreign clients, the New York Times reported in November. The firm was co-founded by a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, Managing Partner Patrick Dorton.

El Salvador signed a $65,000-per-month contract with Rational last fall after an earlier $75,000-per-month contract with Sonoran was reportedly annulled by that country’s government (the Sonoran contract remains listed as active under FARA). Sonoran has also been increasing its lobbying staff, registering the firm’s Latin American president Mario Duarte on the contract with El Salvador.

Dates of representation
(through June)
Embassy of New Zealand
Dec. 2016 – July 2017
Office of the President of the Czech Republic
March 2017 – Dec. 2017
$0 disclosed
$0 disclosed
Korea International Trade Association
May 2017 – June 2017
Ministry of Interior, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
May 2017 – June 2017
$5.4 million
$5.4 million
Embassy of the Republic of Kenya
June 2017 – present
$2 million
$3.7 million
The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Aug. 2017 – Nov. 2017
Embassy of Iceland
Oct. 2017 – Jan. 2019
Democratic Republic of Congo
(through Mer Security & Communications Systems)
Feb. 2018 – Jan. 2019
$1.5 million
$1.5 million
Slobodan Tessic
(Serbian arms dealer, via Venable)
Feb. 2018 – Dec. 2018
$0 disclosed
$0 disclosed
Embassy of The Kingdom of Bahrain
Feb. 2018 – Oct. 2019
Saro Spadaro
(Italian businessman)
May 2018 – Dec. 2018
March 2020 – present
Democratic Party of Albania
June 2018 – present
Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal
June 2018 – Aug. 2018
pro bono
Federal Government of Somalia
Aug. 2018 – March 2019
Saud Abdul Aziz al-Arfaj
(Kuwaiti oil magnate)
Feb. 2019 – Dec. 2019
Zury Mayte Rios Sosa de Weller
(Guatemalan presidential candidate)
April 2019 – June 2019
pro bono
Aden Osman Hussein
(Elite Consulting Group, Somalia)
June 2019 – Dec. 2019
$0 disclosed
$0 disclosed
African Energy Chamber
(South African trade organization)
Aug. 2019 – present
Terra Peregrin
(Portuguese holding company controlled by
Angolan billionaire Isabel dos Santos)
Dec. 2019 – present
$1.25 million
$1.7 million
Reinaldo Munoz Pedroza
(Venezuela attorney general)
Jan. 2020 – Feb. 2020
$2 million
$2 million
Zari David Kovo
(Israeli property developer)
Jan. 2020 – April 2020
$0 disclosed
$0 disclosed
Hashim Mughal
(on behalf of imprisoned Saudi prince
Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud)
May 2020 – present
$2 million contract
Ali Hadad
(imprisoned Algerian businessman)
July 2020 – present
$10 million contract
Republic of El Salvador State Intelligence Agency

Aug. 2020 – ?
$75,000-a-month contract
Source: US Department of Justice / Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)