Tom Barrack, a billionaire ally of Donald Trump who chaired the former president’s inaugural committee in 2016, has been arrested on foreign lobbying charges, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said on Tuesday.
Barrack, 74, was charged in a federal court in New York with seven counts of unlawful efforts to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates, the DOJ said in a statement released by the department’s public affairs office in Washington, DC.
“The defendants repeatedly capitalized on Barrack’s friendships and access to a candidate who was eventually elected president, high-ranking campaign and government officials, and the American media to advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true allegiances,” said Mark Lesko, acting assistant US attorney general for national security.
The US also charged Matthew Grimes, 27, an employee of Barrack’s investment company and Rashid al-Malik, 43, a UAE national and onetime business associate of Barrack who the US government now alleges was working secretly for the UAE government.
Barrack will plead not guilty, a spokesperson told the Associated Press news agency.
“Mr Barrack has made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset,” the spokesperson said.
Barrack referred to al-Malik, who served as a go-between to senior UAE officials, as the UAE’s “secret weapon” to advance its foreign policy in Washington, according to the DOJ.
After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Barrack asked al-Malik to create a “wish list” of US foreign policy goals that the UAE wanted from the incoming Trump administration, according to the DOJ.
Barrack agreed to share non-public views of senior US government officials following a White House meeting with senior UAE officials in May 2017, DOJ said.
In September 2017, at al-Malik’s urging, Barrack advised Trump against hosting a proposed summit at Camp David to address the blockade of Qatar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, according to the DOJ.
Barrack used a dedicated cellular phone with a secure messaging app to communicate with UAE officials, the US government said.
Al-Malik had received tens of thousands of dollars a month from the UAE’s intelligence service for acquiring useful information on Trump administration policy towards the Middle East in 2017, according to a 2019 media report that cited documents and unnamed officials.
The indictment further states that the US government would seek forfeiture of any financial or material gains from the offenses upon the defendants’ conviction.
Al-Malik left the US after he was questioned by special US prosecutors in the Mueller investigation of Trump’s alleged campaign ties to Russia.
Barrack was questioned by the FBI in 2019 and denied that al-Malik had ever asked him to do anything for the UAE. In addition to the illegal influence-peddling charges, Barrack was charged with obstruction of justice and making false statements, the DOJ said.
“Today’s indictment confirms the FBI’s unwavering commitment to rooting out those individuals who think they can manipulate the system to the detriment of the United States and the American people,” said FBI Assistant Director Calvin Shivers.
Barrack’s connection with Trump shows up elsewhere in US foreign policy towards the Middle East during the Trump presidency.
Early in the Trump administration, Barrack was recruited by IP3 International, a US consortium trying to sell nuclear electric power to Saudi Arabia. The group wanted Barrack to use his access to Trump to win administration backing for IP3’s plans, which involved going around Congress to sell restricted US nuclear technology.
Barrack is the founder of private equity firm Colony Capital. He stepped down as executive chairman of the firm in April. Forbes estimated Barrack’s net worth at $1bn.
US prosecutors in California asked that Barrack be held without bail, calling him “an extremely wealthy and powerful individual with substantial ties to Lebanon, the UAE, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” who poses a serious flight risk, according to the Associated Press.