A range of mainstream American publications printed paid propaganda for the government of Malaysia, much of it focused on the campaign against a pro-democracy figure there.
The payments to conservative American opinion writers — whose work appeared in outlets from the Huffington Post and San Francisco Examiner to the Washington Times to National Review and RedState — emerged in a filing this week to the Department of Justice. The filing under the Foreign Agent Registration Act outlines a campaign spanning May 2008 to April 2011 and led by Joshua Trevino, a conservative pundit, who received $389,724.70 under the contract and paid smaller sums to a series of conservative writers.
Trevino lost his column at the Guardian last year after allegations that his relationship with Malaysian business interests wasn't being disclosed in columns dealing with Malaysia. Trevino told Politico in 2011 that "I was never on any 'Malaysian entity's payroll,' and I resent your assumption that I was."
According to Trevino's belated federal filing, the interests paying Trevino were in fact the government of Malaysia, "its ruling party, or interests closely aligned with either." The Malaysian government has been accused of multiple human rights abuses and restricting the press and personal freedoms. Anwar, the opposition leader, has faced prosecution for sodomy, a prosecution widely denounced in the West, which Trevino defended as more "nuanced" than American observers realized. The government for which Trevino worked also attacked Anwar for saying positive things about Israel; Trevino has argued that Anwar is not the pro-democracy figure he appears.
The federal filing specified that Trevino was engaged through the lobbying firm APCO Worldwide and the David All Group, an American online consulting firm. The contract also involved a firm called FBC (short for Fact-Based Communications), whose involvement in covert propaganda prompted a related scandal and forced an executive at The Atlantic to resign from its board.
According to the filings, Trevino was also employed to write for websites called MalaysiaMatters and MalaysiaWatcher.
Trevino's subcontractors included conservative writer Ben Domenech, who made $36,000 from the arrangement, and Rachel Ehrenfeld, the director of the American Center for Democracy, who made $30,000. Seth Mandel, an editor at Commentary, made $5,500 (his byline is attached to the National Review item linked to above). Brad Jackson, writing at the time for RedState, made $24,700. Overall, 10 writers were part of the arrangement.
"It was actually a fairly standard PR operation," Trevino told BuzzFeed Friday. "To be blunt with you, and I think the filing is clear about this, it was a lot looser than a typical PR operation. I wanted to respect these guys' independence and not have them be placement machines."
Trevino said neither he nor the client knew what the writers were going to write before it went up.
"I provided a stipend to support their work in this area and they would just ping me whenever something went up," he said.
Domenech, a former Washington Post blogger who runs a daily morning newsletter called The Transom, said he "was retained by Josh's Trevino Strategies and Media PR firm in 2010 with the general guidance to write about Malaysia, particularly the political scene there."
"I did not ever have anyone looking over my shoulder for what I wrote, and the guidance really was just to write about the political fray there and give my own opinion," Domenech said. "Of course, Josh picked me knowing what my opinion was — I stand by what I wrote at the time and I continue to be critical of Anwar Ibrahim, who I think is a particularly dangerous fellow."
Domenech attached two pieces he'd written about Malaysia for the San Francisco Examiner as well as one for the Huffington Post in his email to BuzzFeed.
Chuck DeVore, the Vice President for Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (where Trevino now works), said he was unaware of the arrangement in an email.
"He knew of my expertise and suggested I write some pieces," DeVore said. "As I've seen over the years, it's not uncommon for freelancers to be paid for their work from various sources. I frankly didn't think much of it, having been paid by papers in a few nations abroad and by PR firms, such as the one Mr. Trevino was running at the time."
"He never told me who his client was," DeVore said. "I wonder if they did the same via him? Interesting that he filed the paperwork, given it appears he was working for someone else."
Mandel said, "I was blogging about issues relating to Israel and anti-Semitism in 2010, and Josh approached me about a Malaysian opposition figure who had made anti-Semitic comments and was affiliated with anti-Israel organizations. I had full editorial freedom — Josh never saw anything I wrote until after it was published — and I had no relationship with the Malaysian government. I was paid by Josh for what was probably a handful of blog posts in the fall of 2010, I believe, while working as a freelancer in Washington."
According to Trevino, he was approached by publicist and social media executive David All in 2008. He never had contact with "the ultimate client," he said. "I only had an assumption of who I was working for. I never knew exactly who APCO was dealing with, never knew exactly who FBC was dealing with."
Trevino acknowledged that he shouldn't have lied to BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, then at Politico, when this first came up in 2011.
"When Ben Smith contacted me in July 2011, I ought to have come clean with him at the time," he said.
As for why he waited until five years after the fact to register with FARA, Trevino said he didn't know he was supposed to have registered until recently.
"The accurate answer is that I didn't know there was a foreign agents database at all." Trevino said. "When all the stuff with the Guardian went down in August, I had a friend ask me whether I regeistered with FARA and I said what's FARA?"
"They allowed me to do a retroactive filing," he said.
Trevino terminated his relationship with Malaysian interests when he joined the Texas Public Policy Foundation, he said.
This article has been updated to include comments from Mandel.
Update 2:33 p.m.: Trevino called back to say that he had actually checked with his legal counsel in 2011 after being questioned by Politico, but had been told at the time that he didn't need to register anywhere.
"Ben Smith had actually asked me if I was a foreign agent back in 2011," Trevino said. "I asked a lawyer friend, my counsel. I said, hey, is there anything I need to comply with? He came back and said no."
"After the Guardian thing, I reached out to a different counsel, and I did some googling and found out about FARA," Trevino said.
UPDATE: Trevino's Malaysia-related posts have been removed from the Huffington Post and replaced with an editors' note that says the author "violated blogger guidelines by not properly disclosing financial ties that amounted to a serious conflict of interest."
UPDATE: The Washington Examiner, where Domenech's post on "The search for moderate Muslims" originally appeared, has removed the post from its website and replaced it with an editors' note saying that "the author of this item presented content for which, unbeknownst to us, and in violation of our standards, he had received payment from a third party mentioned therein -- a payment which he also failed to disclose." The Washington Examiner owned the San Francisco Examiner at the time and content was shared.