WASHINGTON – A former top U.S. ambassador was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay a $93,350 fine Friday for improperly helping a wealthy Persian Gulf country influence U.S. policy and for not disclosing gifts he received from a disgraced political fundraiser.
Richard G. Olson, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the end of the Obama administration, pleaded guilty last year to illegally providing aid and advice to Qatar while working for Imaad Zuberi, a once prolific political donor who is serving a 12-year prison sentence for tax evasion, campaign finance violations and failing to register as a foreign agent.
Olson is one of the most high-profile former government officials to face prosecution amid the Justice Department’s push in recent years to crack down on unreported or illegal influence campaigns funded by foreign governments seeking to alter U.S. policy.
U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey said at the sentencing hearing that while a hefty fine was appropriate for Olson's misconduct, he did not believe it warranted jail time. Harvey told Olson the American public expected exemplary behavior from top diplomats.
“That was not the way you operated," Harvey said.
Olson pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors that included a charge of violating a “revolving door” prohibition for certain high-level government employees against aiding and advising a foreign country for one year after leaving public service. Prosecutors and Olson's lawyers have spent the last few months arguing over the severity of his sentence.
Prosecutors said Olson tried to conceal his wrongdoing by deleting emails and lying to the FBI, and had accepted first-class travel from Zuberi while helping him lobby members of Congress to approve weapons sales to foreign countries.
Evan Turgeon, a prosecutor in the Justice Department's national security division, told the judge that Olson had refused to accept full responsibility for his wrongdoing and imprisonment was needed to send a message of deterrence to other high-ranking public officials.
“If people are allowed to act like the rules don’t apply to them, they will," Turgeon said.
Olson's lawyer said his client never did anything improper in his official capacity to help Zuberi and prosecutors were stretching facts to fit an unfair narrative.
In brief remarks before Harvey's ruling, a tearful Olson said he had already paid a heavy price and had been shunned socially and professionally.
“I made a mistake and it has had enormous consequences," Olson said.
Olson is the only former government official associated with Zuberi to face any criminal charges despite prosecutors saying the former political donor’s case showed a “pervasive, corrupt foreign interference with our elections and policy-making processes.” They have alleged Zubari used illegal campaign contributions to gain access to top U.S. officials, which an Associated Press investigation found included then-Vice President Joe Biden.
Zubari got those meetings — and many others with influential U.S. officials and lawmakers — thanks, in part, to an illegal straw donor scheme in which he paid for others’ donations, prosecutors said.
The AP's investigation found several instances where Zuberi-linked donations to members of Congress occurred within a few weeks — or even days — of him receiving something in return. To boost his profile, Zuberi also donated to, or hired, several Washington advocacy groups, lobbying shops and public relations firms. He also hired former officials to assist him on business projects. Those officials included Olson, former NATO supreme commander Gen. Wesley Clark and former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Sandweg.
Prosecutors indicated earlier this year they had dropped a related investigation into retired four-star Gen. John Allen for his role in a behind-the-scenes effort to help Qatar shape U.S. policy in 2017. Working with Zuberi and OIson, Allen helped Qatari officials strategize on how to gain the upper hand in Washington when a diplomatic crisis erupted between the country and its neighbors, according to an FBI affidavit in support of a search warrant to obtain records from Allen, Olson and Zuberi.
Part of Allen’s advice was for Qatar to “use the full spectrum” of information operations, including “black ” or covert operations, for its influence campaign, the affidavit said. The trio lobbied U.S. officials after returning from their Doha meeting with Qatari officials, the FBI said.
Qatar, an energy-rich Persian Gulf monarchy, has spent lavishly on its influence efforts in the U.S.
Olson said Friday he was motivated to help Qatar because he believed it was in the best interest of the U.S. He added that one of his greatest regrets was recruiting Allen into the effort because of the subsequent negative publicity.
Allen has denied any wrongdoing but stepped down as president of the Brookings Institution, a prestigious Washington think tank, amid the FBI investigation.
Mustian reported from New York.