There's been a lot of talk this week about how Randy Scheunemann, John McCain's top foreign policy adviser, spent years as a lobbyist for the Georgia government.
So let's take a look at what Scheuneman was actually doing in that role -- which helped earn his firm nearly $900,000 since 2004. Lobbying for a foreign government is a vaguely defined task that involves cultivating contacts, trying to shape perception and influence key decisions. For Georgia, the goal was clear -- to get on track for NATO membership and secure western backing against Russian influence and aggression.
Schuenemann's dual role of paid foreign agent (as recently as March) and key adviser to a presidential candidate is unusual, especially since McCain has not indicated that Scheunemann will recuse himself from Georgia issues.
That conflict of interest is underscored by McCain's aggressive effort to influence the situation in Georgia over the past week. McCain appears to be conducting his own foriegn policy independent of the White House. The candidate is sending Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to travel to Georgia, though it is not clear how their visit will comport with the State Department's own efforts to manage the situation.
"John McCain is heavily politicizing this process. That is weird when one of the participants in the process is a guy who has taken $900,000 from the Georgia government," said Steve Clemons, director of the foreign policy program at the New America Foundation. "It stinks."
As a paid foreign agent, Scheunemann and his lobbying firm, Orion Strategies, filed disclosure reports with the Department of Justice, which offer some insight into the process of exercising influence in Washington.
Scheunemann spent a lot of time working the phones, talking to key Bush Administration officials about Georgia's efforts to join NATO. He often spoke to Ambassador John Tefft who heads the U.S. embassy in Georgia, as well as Dan Fried and Matt Bryza at the State Department, Dan Fata at the Defense Department and David Merkel from the National Security Council.
Scheunemann also lobbied on Capitol Hill, particularly in late 2006 when a key piece of legislation was moving through the Senate regarding what countries might be added to NATO. He often talked and met with the foreign policy adviser in McCain's office, John Fontaine. He also met regularly with Stephen Rademaker on the Senate majority leader's staff and with Jessica Fugate from the Foreign Relations Committee Staff.
He spent some of his time dealing with journalists. For example in July 2007, Scheunemann met with with Jackson Diehl, a deputy editorial page editor for the Washington Post to discuss developments in Georgia's NATO aspirations. Last year he wrote a letter to Harper's Magazine rebutting a story about Georgia.
When leaders from Georgia came to visit Washington, Scheunemann was out at restaurants introducing them to beltway powerbrokers. For example, in December 2006, Georgia Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli was visiting and Scheunemann arranged a dinner for him with Sen. Joseph Biden(D-DE), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Russ Fiengold (D-WI) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), also of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen, Joe Lieberman (D-CT) of the Armed Services Committee. Also at the table was Jessica Fugate, a staffer on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Sheunemann also traveled to Georgia to host key lawmakers from the U.S.. For example, in August of 2006, Scheunemann was there with Sen. John McCain and the rest of a Senate delegation that included Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who sis on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mel Martinez (R-FL) of the Senate Armed Services Committee, , and Sen. John Sununu (R-NH).
Scheunemann also traveled to Georgia for more low-profile visits, like in January 2007, when he flew to Tbilisi and spent five nights in the Marriott hotel in the capital. In April 2005, Scheunemann spoke at a conference in Tbilisi, where he was identified as "a member of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Committee on NATO."
In addition to peddling his access to Washington power brokers to Georgia officials, Scheunemann also appears to have peddled his access to Georgia officials to energy investors. Scheunemann worked with Stephen Payne, the Houston-based energy consultant who was caught on video offering access to top Bush Administration officials in exchange for big donations to the future George W. Bush library fund. One of Payne's groups touts Scheuneman's ties with Georgia as a way to forge deals with the Georgia state-run oil company.
Scheunemann has tried to distance himself from Georgia as McCain's campaign has geared up this year. He de-registered as a foreign agent in March. But he still owns his firm. And that firm signed a new $200,000 contract with Georgia on the same day McCain called Saakashvili and then issued a public statement in support of Georgia. A McCain aide denied there was any connection.
"For a country like Georgia, what they are trying to do essentially is get meetings, to get noticed, to further their goals. What Randy Scheunemann was essentially trying to do is build relationships between key decision makers in the White House and in Congress, to sell the notion that this is a vital democracy," said Clemons of the New America Foundation.
"What Randy Scheunemann achieved was an effort to kind of put Georgia and the ideological meaning of hugging this young democracy over the geostrategic reality of managing vital American interests," Clemons said.