Meet Bahrain’s Best Friend in Congress
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Last year, as the government of Bahrain violently suppressed an Arab Spring protest movement, an unlikely champion of the small Gulf nation emerged on Capitol Hill in Washington: Democratic Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, the delegate from American Samoa.
Faleomavaega, who has been a non-voting delegate in Congress since 1989 and is now the third-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, typically focuses on more local matters: the tuna industry, Pacific Islands affairs and securing federal funding for American Samoa.
In March 2011, just weeks into the crisis, Faleomavaega emerged seemingly out of nowhere — he has no history of commenting on Middle East affairs — to enter a 2,500-word statement into the Congressional Record that closely echoed the Bahraini government's spin. "Bahrain is under attack," he said, painting protesters as violent, Iran-backed vandals representing "the worst kind of seditious infiltration from a foreign enemy." He praised the Crown Prince for supposedly meeting protesters' demands for democratic reforms.
"Mr. Speaker," Faleomavaega said. "I have to ask why the demonstrators returned to protesting again, even after all their demands were agreed to."
Just days before, the government had torn down the iconic Pearl Monument at the center of the protests, and Saudi Arabian tanks had rolled into Bahrain to back the government crackdown.
So, why is the delegate from American Samoa so interested in supporting Bahrain? Faleomavaega told ProPublica it's because "Bahrain has been a key ally and supporter of U.S. security interests in this region of the world." But there's another connection: A lobbying firm run by a longtime friend and campaign contributor to Faleomavaega is working for the regime's allies.
The lobbying firm, D.C.-based Policy Impact Communications, is headed by William Nixon, a former Reagan speechwriter and Hill staffer who describes himself as a close personal friend of Faleomavaega. In 2010, Nixon and his wife gave Faleomavaega $4,800, making Policy Impact the congressman's second-largest organizational donor that cycle. (The largest donor was StarKist.) Faleomavaega raises less than most members of Congress, having taken in just $65,500 that election and just $15,800 in the current cycle. Nixon is also president of the Mormon church's northern Virginia Mount Vernon Stake, of which Faleomavaega is a member. (American Samoa has one of the highest percentages of Mormons in the world, with more than 25 percent of residents belonging to the church, according to Latter-day Saints figures.)
In March 2011, a month into the Bahrain crisis and about two weeks before Faleomavaega entered that first statement into the Congressional Record, Policy Impact created the Bahrain American Council. The group is operated out of Policy Impact's K Street offices. And its board is vice-chaired by a Policy Impact executive. The group says it focuses on promoting U.S.-Bahrain trade and "educating the public about the strategic importance of Bahrain."
The council also has close ties to Bahrain's government: It previously listed a top Bahraini official as a member of its advisory board. The council was set up by a group of Bahraini-American businessmen, according to Policy Impact, but details of who is funding the group are not public. Policy Impact's Nixon said the firm has not registered with the Justice Department as an agent of Bahrain, which is required when a firm is lobbying for a foreign entity, because the Bahrain American Council is run by Americans.