Isabel dos Santos hired Trump-tied lobbyists right after learning of the Luanda Leaks

Isabel dos Santos in 2017.
Isabel dos Santos in 2017.
Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville
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Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s scandal-plagued richest woman, hired a US lobbying firm with close ties to the Trump administration last month, a day after learning that a group of journalists, including Quartz, were investigating her empire, records show (pdf).

The Luanda Leaks investigation, published last weekend, revealed how dos Santos, daughter of Angola’s autocratic former president, siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars out of one of the poorest countries on the planet. Angola’s attorney general today charged her with money laundering, and Portuguese prosecutors have said they are investigating information reported in the Luanda Leaks. Dos Santos has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, which she says are politically motivated.

The lobbyist, Sonoran Policy Group, is notorious for its work for repressive regimes and has ties to the Trump administration. Since 2017, it has earned $10.5 million from foreign governments, according to OpenSecrets, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Its founder, Robert Stryk, was an unpaid West Coast adviser for Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, and has become an exemplar of powerful new lobbying operations that have sprung up since Trump took office. In 2017, Stryk hired two former campaign staffers at Sonoran, both of whom have since left.

“Sonoran are really well known as a Trump-tied lobbying firm, where they have made a lot of business on their connections to the administration. That alone speaks to one of the allures of that firm [to dos Santos],” said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at OpenSecrets.

Dos Santos’ two contracts with Sonoran, worth $2.2 million over a year, are vaguely worded, but oblige the firm to arrange meetings with “United States and United Kingdom stakeholders” and to “advise and place media” for dos Santos.  One of the contracts was signed by dos Santos herself, and another by Mario Leite da Silva, a key dos Santos aide who has been named as a suspect in Angola’s criminal investigation into her empire. Stryk signed both the contracts for Sonoran.

The first contract was signed on Dec. 13, a day after reporters from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which led the probe, first contacted dos Santos for comment on the story.

Dos Santos’ contracts with Sonoran were first reported by Aaron Schaffer of Al-Monitor.

The particulars of Sonoran’s work for dos Santos are unclear, but the size of the contract suggests it’s going to be a “full-scale job,” said Craig Holman, an expert on lobbying at Public Citizen, a nonprofit. “That’s going to be a very expensive operation she’s launching. That means she is very concerned that the scandal could be extremely costly,” he said.

Sonoran’s work for the Democratic Republic of Congo has included lobbying against US sanctions, filings show. The company raised eyebrows in 2018 for taking $5.4 million from the Saudi government, but apparently doing no work for it, which “gives the appearance of [Saudi Arabia] buying influence” in the Trump administration, Massoglia said. The dos Santos contracts with Sonoran don’t have that appearance, she noted.

This month, Stryk showed up in notes published by the House Intelligence Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry into Trump. Lev Parnas, a former fixer for Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine who has now turned cooperating witness, scribbled a note to himself saying “hire Robert Stryk…or Brian Ballard,” the records show. (Ballard has been dubbed “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.”)

Dos Santos hired Sonoran through a Lisbon-based firm called Terra Peregrin. Files found in the Luanda Leaks connect Terra Peregrin to a controversial dos Santos-owned offshore company called Wise Intelligence, which received millions in state contracts and subcontracted Boston Consulting Group and PwC to do much of the work. A draft contract suggests that Wise subcontracted Terra Peregrin to do human resources work for €17,500 a month, beginning in 2016. The company was originally founded in 2014 to make a €1.2 billion takeover bid for Portugal Telecom, which eventually failed, an internal document shows.

Quartz was one of 37 international media partners on the Luanda Leaks, which was led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and stemmed from a leak of more than 700,000 files made to the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, a Paris-based advocacy and legal group.

Sonoran and a representative for dos Santos didn’t immediately answer questions for comment.

Additional reporting by ICIJ’s Scilla Alecci and Delphine Reuter.