Florida’s Brian Ballard has gone from zero (federal) clients to 100 real quick, leveraging his Trump ties to build a Washington office practically from nothing and collecting numerous high-profile clients since the beginning of the Trump administration.
Ballard Partners has obtained more than one hundred foreign and domestic clients since Trump’s election and taken in more than $28 million from its clients during that time frame.
After establishing himself as a top political fundraiser for the Trump campaign in 2016, Ballard was a member of Trump’s transition team and served as vice chair of Trump’s inaugural committee before embedding himself as a leading lobbyist at the center of Trump’s orbit.
Ballard has continued to grow his lobbying operation, assembling a team of key players in Trump world (Editor’s note: also in Tallahassee, lobbying the Florida Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis, and the Florida Cabinet.)
The firm recently announced the addition of former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to spearhead a new corporate regulatory compliance practice. Like others at Ballard, Bondi has deep ties to Trump.
Long before she served alongside Ballard as a member of Trump’s presidential transition team, their relationship had already attracted controversy when then-Florida Attorney General Bondi decided not to pursue a case against Trump University shortly after her campaign received a $25,000 donation from the Trump Foundation. In 2016, the IRS penalized Trump for violating federal tax law by illegally giving charity money from the Trump Foundation to Bondi’s campaign when she didn’t pursue the case against Trump University and paid a $2,500 penalty.
Former White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah joined the firm earlier in January, helping lead the firm’s newly-formed media wing. The rest of the firm’s foreign influence operation includes former includes former Rep. Robert Wexler (R-Fla.) and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs James Rubin. Florida Republican PR man Justin Sayfie, who President Trump appointed to be a member of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in April 2018 and is slated to continue acting as a part of the Trump administration in that role until 2021, simultaneously works as a foreign agent at Ballard’s firm representing the interests of governments of Turkey and Qatar.
Sayfie began working as a foreign agent of Turkey in 2017, but beefed up his portfolio with the addition of Qatar in April 2018 — the month Trump appointed him to the White House commission. Sayfie isn’t the only foreign agent who has represented the interests of another government while serving on President Trump’s White House fellowship commission, but the dual roles have come under increased scrutiny and raised questions about the lack of transparency surrounding these arrangements.
Foreign interests’ agents at the White House
Ballard’s foreign influence operations first attracted scrutiny when FARA disclosures revealed that he was personally lobbying President Trump as a foreign agent of the government of Kosovo while the President was at Mar-a-Lago.
Over the weekend, another of Ballard’s foreign clients — a controversial Nigerian politician named Atiku Abubakar — made headlines for staying at the Trump International Hotel, which has become a hub for foreign interests and lobbyists seeking to curry influence within the administration. Abubakar gained notoriety after the FBI alleged that he demanded a $500,000 bribe from former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). Jefferson was convicted on corruption charges related to his dealings in Africa and at one point stashed $90,000 in, quite literally, cold hard cash for Abubakar in his freezer.
After being barred from travel to the United States under a presidential proclamation targeting corruption by foreign officials became an issue in Abubakar upcoming presidential election, the People’s Democratic Party of Nigeria hired Ballard’s firm with a hefty $1.1 million contract in September 2018. Months later, Abubakar has already traveled to Washington, met with lawmakers and booked a stay at the Trump hotel.
The firm has quickly built up relationships with a number of foreign clients eager to get into the President’s ear.
Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank, gave Ballard at least $2 million to lobby the State Department and other parts of the U.S. government. The timing of the bank’s lobbying efforts — coinciding with foreign lobbying from the Turkish government — raises questions.
Halkbank deputy chief Mehmet Hakan Atilla was arrested by U.S. officials in March 2017 for allegedly funneling millions of dollars to Iran to secretly evade sanctions. He was convicted of bank fraud in early 2018 and sentenced to 32 months in prison. Turkish officials, including President Tayyip Erdoğan, have unsuccessfully pushed for the U.S. to release Atilla and end any investigations into Halkbank.
Ballard represents both Halkbank and the Turkish government as a foreign agent. Turkey has paid Ballard’s firm nearly $1.9 million since 2017. Wexler, formerly a 13-year representative from Florida, often emails positive Turkey news to his ex-colleagues.
Ballard’s top clientele includes a number of foreign businesses, including Lebanon-based telecom Africell Holding ($400,000), which lobbied the Overseas Private Investment Corporation for help regarding investments into emerging markets, and Latin American television company Globovision ($800,000).
Billionaire David Yakobashvili, one of the founders of Russian food giant Wimm Bill Dann Foods, paid Ballard $450,000 through the first three quarters of 2018 to lobby the U.S. government on immigration and trade policy.
Back on the domestic front, Ballard has leveraged Mar-a-Lago connections to get high-profile, Trump-connected clients.
One of Ballard’s largest clients is Florida-based private prison contractor GEO Group, which gave $1 million to the firm over the last two years. In 2016, GEO Group and its subsidiaries gave $170,000 to Trump Victory — the same fundraising committee Ballard ran — $275,000 to pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now and $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration. GEO is just one of many companies vying for access to Trump. Among Ballard’s clients is Detroit International Bridge, which paid $400,000 in 2018. In June, the company appealed directly to Trump by airing an ad on “Fox & Friends” in the Washington, D.C., market that urged Trump to revoke a permit allowing for Canada-financed construction of a U.S.-Canada bridge and to “choose American” by having Detroit International build the bridge instead.