ALBANY -- Former U.S. Rep. John E. Sweeney, who now spends much of his time in Washington, D.C. as a lobbyist, has signed on to help a large Russian state-owned bank work against further U.S. economic sanctions.
The contract to represent Vnesheconombank State Development Corp. calls for Sweeney to be paid $62,500 a month -- or $750,000 per year -- for "provision of legal services that may include potential meetings with U.S. government officials regarding potential new sanctions legislation (not existing sanctions) that could affect the activities of VEC.RF." The information was included in a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing with the Department of Justice.
Sweeney, 64, of Clifton Park, a Republican, represented parts of the Capital Region in Congress from 1997 to 2006. He is just one of dozens of former members of Congress who now lobby the institutions of government, working on behalf of often deep-pocketed clients to influence legislation and policy.
Vnesheconombank is the largest development bank in Russia, "working with commercial banks to provide financing for large scale projects to develop the country's infrastructure, industrial production and social sphere, strengthen its technological potential and improve the quality of life," according to the filing, which was first reported by Mother Jones magazine.
The bank has close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and is among the Russian economic development entities placed under sanctions in 2014, as part of President Barack Obama's response to the Russian invasion of Crimea. It has reportedly suffered billions of dollars in losses because of those sanctions, which included being blocked from receiving financial credits from banks in the U.S. and Europe.
The bank's head met following the 2016 election with Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to the Mueller report, though the report was unable to determine whether the meeting was more about business or diplomacy.
Now, more sanctions against the bank are possible, as some in Congress look for ways to respond to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and to discourage such interference in the future. Sweeney appears to have been hired to try to head that prospect off. Russia denies any effort to interfere in the election, though U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously agree that it occurred and was orchestrated to benefit Trump.
There are two major bipartisan bills that could impact VEC's interests. One, proposed by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, would place new sanctions on Russian banking and energy firms. The other, proposed by Send. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, would bar U.S. firms and citizens from investing in Russian energy projects or participating in ventures that involve Russian government debt.
Sweeney has had close connections to President Donald J. Trump since before the 2016 election.
Sweeney was involved in Trump's 2016 campaign, and since Trump took office he co-founded a Washington firm, SMW Partners. He has lobbied for a variety of clients, including telecommunications giant Comcast Corp., Royal Dutch Shell, NES Financial and Nord Stream 2 AG, the Swiss conglomerate looking to build a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, bypassing the Ukraine. Sweeney has also lobbied for Safe Rx, which makes locking bottles for prescription medications, intended to prevent medicine theft and abuse.
But the bulk of that work occurred in 2017 and 2018, when Republicans were in control of the House of Representatives. Federal filings available on the OpenSecrets.org website show SMW Partners received $1,180,000 for lobbying work in 2017, and $930,000 in 2018. But so far in 2019, after the Democrats took control of the House in January, it has received only $40,000, according to its filings.
Sweeney spoke briefly to The Gazette on Thursday and said he would call back to discuss his work, but did not.
At $62,500 per month, the VEC bank contract signed in early August appears to be the largest Sweeney has received. The contract is for a single year, through next July 31.
Corporations or other entities seeking help in Washington typically sign short-term contracts with lobbyists, based on their interest in having a say in any given piece of legislation that may been proposed in Congress, or policies that may be proposed within regulatory agencies.
During the hotly contested 2016 Republican primaries, Sweeney was the co-chair of the Trump for President New York campaign. He later served as senior adviser and deputy counsel to the general election campaign. He was also part of the team that spent weeks after the 2016 nomination interviewing and vetting candidates for administration jobs.
Sweeney, a Troy native, has been respected for his political skills in Republican circles for decades. He rose through Rensselaer County politics and became an operative in state politics, at one point serving as executive director of the state Republican Committee. In 1998, he won what was then the 20th Congressional District seat, in his first bid for elected office, following the retirement of U.S. Rep. Gerald Solomon. After the 2000 election, he was involved in efforts to halt a recount in Florida that could have threatened president-elect George W. Bush's victory over Vice President Al Gore.
In 2006, Sweeney was defeated for re-election by then-political newcomer Kristen Gillibrand, now the state's junior U.S. senator. At the time there were reports of erratic behavior and heavy drinking that eventually led to two DWI arrests, the second of which led to a 30-day sentence in the Saratoga County Jail in 2009.
Sweeney has since acknowledged much of the bad publicity he received was self-inflicted. He has said he has been sober since 2009.