WASHINGTON – The same deep political ties that made former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber such an effective lobbyist were the ones that entangled him in the ongoing Russia probe.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was a close friend and political ally. Current House Speaker Paul Ryan interned at the conservative think tank Weber cofounded. And when D.C. power broker Paul Manafort went looking for a firm to represent his Ukrainian client’s interests, he turned to superlobbyist Vin Weber.
News that Weber had been caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian influence in U.S. politics has been hard to reconcile for friends who know him as thoughtful, honest and smart enough to abide by foreign lobbying rules.
“I’m just kind of reading these stories. At this point I’m not sure what’s there, what’s not there,” said former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who like Weber pivoted from serving in Congress to lobbying it.
Weber, he said, was someone he would seek out to consult about politics and geopolitics, or just for a visit when they both found themselves up in Walker, where they both have homes (former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has also been politically close to Weber, has a place nearby, too).
“He certainly has a reputation for great intellect and great integrity, and a pretty nice guy, too,” Coleman said of Weber.
Weber runs the D.C. office of Mercury, a self-described “high-stakes public strategy firm.” He declined an interview request; a Mercury partner said in a statement that the firm is cooperating fully with Mueller’s probe.
Weber’s path crossed Manafort’s five years ago, when Manafort was looking for a firm to represent the interests of one of his Ukrainian clients. It was a plum lobbying job: Manafort and the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine steered almost $700,000 to Weber and Mercury from 2012 to 2014.
After news broke last year of Weber’s ties to Manafort’s Ukrainian efforts, Weber told the Star Tribune that Manafort might have misled him about the center’s true mission.
“Our purpose was to keep [the Ukrainians] away from Moscow,” Weber said after the New York Times broke the news of a secret ledger that detailed more than $12 million in alleged cash payments to Manafort from former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled his country to evade charges of treason after his pro-Russian regime was toppled. “Our goal as Americans and Westerners was to bring Ukraine into the E.U. Our explicit work was anti-Russian.”
Weber, 65, was born in the southwestern Minnesota town of Slayton. After working as an aide to several Minnesota Republicans, Weber at age 28 was elected to Congress representing southwestern Minnesota. He soon grew close to a bomb-throwing back bencher: Newt Gingrich.
Weber was by Gingrich’s side as he laid the groundwork for his rise to speaker of the House, but left Congress shortly before his ally took the top job. He later cofounded the conservative think tank Empower America, served as a consultant on a series of Republican presidential campaigns — but not the Trump campaign, which he publicly criticized — and for years co-chaired an influential public affairs training program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. And he played the role of senior statesman inside the Minnesota GOP.
Through it all, Weber built a heavyweight lobbying portfolio. He lobbied on behalf of Nigeria, Qatar, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, the prefecture of Okinawa and Ukraine. His corporate clients this year alone included eBay, Airbnb and Hyundai Motor Corp.
“He’s a true public servant. He cares deeply about this country and he works very hard. You don’t find people like that anymore,” said Annette Meeks, head of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota and a longtime friend who worked for both Weber and Gingrich. The idea that he might be caught up in something unethical is “impossible to imagine,” she said.
“He’s one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet and one of the best political strategists I’ve ever met,” Meeks added.
The 31-page Manafort indictment includes a lengthy section on Manafort’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Yanukovych, carried out by a pair of D.C. firms: one Republican, one Democratic. Weber’s Mercury was “Company A” in the court files, the Associated Press confirmed. “Company B” was the Podesta Group, headed by longtime Democratic operative Tony Podesta, the brother of former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Weber has said that Manafort pitched the job as an offer to work for an entity, backed by Ukrainian citizens, that supported the country’s entry into the European Union. The indictment, however, says that Company A was told that it would be “representing the Government of Ukraine in [Washington] D.C.”
Podesta has stepped down from the firm that bears his name. Mercury’s statement said it retained counsel and is cooperating fully with Mueller’s investigation.
“We represented the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU) for about two years beginning in 2012 to mid 2014,” Mercury partner Michael McKeon said in the statement. “Mercury worked for the ECFMU to align Ukraine with western democracies generally, and the European Union specifically, on security, political and economic issues. … Mercury takes its obligations to follow all laws, rules and regulations very seriously.”