Exclusive: How Ukraine Wooed Conservative Websites

Passion or payola? A source describes being offered $500 for an article, and a consultant doesn’t deny payments. posted on

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych Efrem Lukatsky / AP

WASHINGTON — Several conservative bloggers repeated talking points given to them by a proxy group for the Ukrainian government — and at least one writer was paid by a representative of the Ukrainian group, according to documents and emails obtained by BuzzFeed.

The Ukrainian campaign began in the run-up to high-stakes Ukrainian parliamentary elections last year, and sought to convince skeptical American conservatives that the pro-Russian Party of Regions, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, deserved American support. During that period, articles echoing Ukrainian government talking points appeared on leading conservative online outlets, including RedState, Breitbart, and Pajamas Media.

The emails and documents, which include prepackaged quotes from election officials and talking points that some writers copied nearly word-for-word, offer a glimpse into how foreign governments dodge tight Justice Department regulations on foreign propaganda to covertly lobby in the United States: The payments were routed through a front group in Belgium to an American consultant, who has urged writers not to cooperate with a reporter investigating the campaign.

The model resembles a recent stealth campaign in which bloggers were paid by the Malaysian government to write favorable stories, though the Ukraine campaign appears to have involved smaller sums of money.

One of the writers who participated in the campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and because of lingering qualms about the arrangement, they said, described being offered $500 for a blog post praising Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions. The payment was arranged by George Scoville, a libertarian media strategist, and Scoville’s name was on the check, the source said.

An email from October 26, 2012 shows Scoville inviting writers to join a conference with Mikhail Okhendovskyy of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission. The call was organized by the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based group headed by Leonid Khazara, a former senior member of parliament from the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. According to its website, it is a “a unique ‘Modern Ukraine’ organisation based in Brussels and operating internationally as an advocate for enhancing EU-Ukraine relations.”

In practical terms, the ECFMU exists to promote Yanukovych and the party — but its nominal independence means that its representatives in Washington do not need to register as foreign agents and make the extensive disclosures required under that program. Instead, the only evidence of its activity comes in the far more relaxed domestic lobbying disclosure law, which shows that the Brussels-based group employs two well-connected Washington lobbying firms, The Podesta Group and Mercury/Clark and Weinstock.

One email from October 29, the day after the election, shows Scoville sending out documents full of exit poll results and prepackaged statements from election observers.

“I just wanted to share the attached documents with you in case you were interested,” Scoville writes. “You’re under no obligation to write anything, but I wanted you to have this info in case you were feeling nostalgic and/or entrepreneurial :)”.

“But in all seriousness, if you could spend a few minutes today tweeting about the results using #ukrainevotes and promoting some of the pieces you wrote, that would be very helpful to us,” Scoville writes.

His next email, sent five minutes later, consists of a list of “talking points that are mostly tweetable — some may need to be shortened.” These include “Ukraine has demonstrated its commitment to democracy and passed the test put forth by the international community of holding transparent elections” and “The victory for the Party of Regions is a victory for the people, for Ukraine and for democracy.”

Yanukovych’s party has been criticized for reverting to Soviet-style tactics such as jailing opposition figures including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Europe’s human rights court ruled earlier this year that Tymoshenko’s pre-trial imprisonment on charges of illegally making a gas deal with Russia was “arbitrary,” and the U.S. and European Union have called for her release.

The source who provided BuzzFeed with the emails and documents said that other writers involved in the Scoville campaign had included Breeanne Howe of RedState and Warner Todd Huston, a freelance conservative writer. The source estimated that around five or six writers were on the October 26 conference call.

Writers involved in the campaign had been individually warned by Scoville not to talk to BuzzFeed during the reporting of a story on this subject that appeared in March, and to deny any payment if asked, according to the source.

Howe denied having accepted payment for her pro-Party of Regions blog posts published in October when asked about it in March. “I can’t speak for anyone else that wrote on the subject, I can assure you that my employment at RedState is an unpaid labor of love and I was absolutely not employed by or on the payroll for the Ukranian gov’t (or any other gov’t for that matter),” she said at the time.

But her posts hew closely to talking points issued by Scoville, sometimes nearly verbatim.

A document titled “BACKGROUND INFO FOR MESSAGING (NOT FOR PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION)” includes the following: “The current Ukrainian government is also reforming its energy sector to ensure efficient use of its resources and preserve its important role as an energy corridor between the Caspian Basin and Europe — a corridor that is not subject to Russian interference.”

On October 8, Howe wrote: “Ukraine actually has a large reserve of natural gas and serves as an energy corridor between the Caspian Basin and Europe. A corridor which, incidentally, is not subject to Russian interference.”

Howe also used some of the quotes from election observers that were provided in an email attachment from Scoville in a post after the election on October 29 about “Ukraine Election Success.” She did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed this week.

Warner Todd Huston was one of the more prolific of the writers tasked with writing pro-Yanukovych stories. He posted Ukraine content on Family Security Matters, a website that used to be run by the Center for Security Policy, anti-Muslim pundit Frank Gaffney’s think tank. Other posts appeared on small sites like Right Wing News, ChicagoNow’s Publius Forum, and Canada Free Press.

In a post titled “Russia’s Constant Interference in Ukraine,” Huston wrote that the imprisonment of Tymoshenko was justified.

“Too many in the west imagine that she was arrested by a Ukraine backsliding into a Soviet-styled police state where all opposition leaders are squelched,” Huston wrote. “This, however, just isn’t the case.” Huston called Tymoshenko “one of Putin’s best assets in the former Soviet-satellite nation.”

At the end of the talking point sheet provided for writers, there is a note addressing the Tymoshenko jailing:

NOTE: There is also a controversy surrounding the former Prime Minister of Ukraine (Tymoshenko) who has been convicted and jailed on corruption charges. It is a complex issue — she definitely was a Putin crony and there is an independent investigation going on now — but this is more about Ukraine’s elections, its geopolitical importance and encouraging the current (and likely next) Ukrainian
administration. If you have questions about the former PM, let me know.

Huston told BuzzFeed that he hadn’t been on the conference call but that he knew Scoville and had often received pitches from him.

“Of course, I see George whenever I’ve gone to a conference in D.C.,” Huston said.

“I got some press release-like emails from George back then like I do many other issues (like all the union stuff I have written) but I don’t get money for all those type of pitches,” Huston said. “I am always looking for stuff to write and ask organizations for their stuff so I can see if it catches my interest.”

Huston didn’t directly deny being paid by Scoville.

“I would not be open to say who pays me and who doesn’t,” he said.

Other writers who were producing incongruous pro-Party of Regions stories at the time include Ben Shapiro of Breitbart and Seton Motley, a conservative blogger.

One of Shapiro’s Ukraine posts, “Hillary Sides With Anti-Semitic Ukrainian Opposition,” is nearly identical to a post that appeared four days later in a different publication under Huston’s byline: “Clinton Dept. of State Backing the Anti-Semitism Party in Ukraine?”

Shapiro said he hadn’t been paid by anyone other than his employers to do the posts.

Scoville “was not the one pitching me as far as I recall,” Shapiro said.

Motley wrote a post for Human Events about Ukraine’s gas dealings with Russia on October 15, and one for Pajamas Media on October 5 titled “Ukraine is Leading West — Not Bowing East” that cites most of the statistics about Ukraine’s economy contained in the talking points provided by Scoville.

“I wasn’t on whatever emails you have, I wasn’t on them,” Motley said when reached by BuzzFeed. “I wasn’t paid anything by George Scoville.”

After multiple requests for comment, Scoville did not deny that he had paid writers to place stories having to do with Ukraine. He wouldn’t elaborate further, nor would he detail his relationship with the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.

“Thanks for reaching out. I also received your voicemail,” Scoville said in an email. “I don’t discuss either my clients or the specifics of my project work with media.”

Description of European Centre for a Modern Ukraine call

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Text of talking points sent from Scoville to bloggers


BACKGROUND INFO FOR MESSAGING (NOT FOR PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION)

Pivoting Towards the E.U. – Ukraine’s Economic Future

Ukraine is fully committed to integration into the E.U. – this is one of the priorities of the current administration. Furthermore, Ukraine is ready to undertake the tough measures needed to implement the Association Agreement, which is the next step in the E.U. ascension process.

As part of this effort, Ukrainian authorities are undertaking an effort to transform Ukraine into a more transparent market economy in line with European standards. And results are already apparent: despite the global economic slowdown, Ukraine’s economy grew by 4.2% in 2010 and 5.2% in 2011 with exports growing 37% in 2011.

These gains will be further locked in by the Deep and Comprehensive FTA (DCFTA) with the E.U. initialled in March 2012. The DCFTA, which is still pending is final signing and ratification, is a major step in reinforcing Ukraine’s ties with the E.U. and building on an already strong trading relationship. In 2010, the E.U. exported to Ukraine €17.3 billion worth of goods, with Ukraine’s exports to the E.U. worth €11.4 billion.

The current Ukrainian government is also reforming its energy sector to ensure efficient use of its resources and preserve its important role as an energy corridor between the Caspian Basin and Europe – a corridor that is not subject to Russian interference. As a sign of Ukraine’s commitment to Western values, Ukraine is
opening the country to international election observers this October as it elects a new parliament.

Russia and Geopolitics

Tymoshenko, both before and during her tenure as Prime Minister, fostered close relationships with Russian officials, most notably President Putin. These relationships led directly to Tymoshenko unilaterally signing a long-term gas contract on behalf of Ukraine’s state owned gas company that leaves Ukraine bound to buy Russian natural gas at above market rates. The deal was explicitly opposed by
Viktor Yushchenko, the former Ukrainian President that ushered in the Orange Revolution alongside Tymoshenko.

President Putin remains a vocal ally of Tymoshenko and recently told reporters, “We never sign contracts contradicting the laws of the contract partner country, in this case Ukraine.” He has previously questioned her imprisonment.

President Putin is also actively trying to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence by pushing the country to join its Customs Union, designed to rival the EU. The EU Association Agreement, which the Ukraine is actively pursing, is seen as
incompatible with Customs Union membership and Ukraine has demonstrated a clear preference to joining Europe. The EU cannot turn its back on Ukraine at this pivotal moment; this is an opportunity to firmly bring Ukraine into the Western order, an outcome that is favoured by both Ukraine and the West.

Ukraine has a longstanding and productive relationship with NATO and supports the mission in Afghanistan in addition to conducting key training exercises with NATO forces. [NOTE: Prior to Yanukovych’s Presidency, Ukraine was considering joining NATO. Negotiations began with the 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which established the NATO-Ukraine Commission. Ukraine’s ambitions ended in 2010 when President Yanukovych submitted a law for ratification that bans the
country from joining military alliances.]

Reform of the Judicial System

Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, recently adopted significant reforms to its judicial system that will replace its Soviet-era Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). Proposed by Ukraine’s President, the new CPC equalizes the powers of defence and prosecution lawyers in addition to numerous other reforms that bring Ukraine’s justice system in line with European standards.

Ukraine’s current government is the first to take on the country’s long-standing problem with corruption, which was bad under Soviet rule before worsening in the period following independence. A recent report by the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption notes the country’s recent moves to combat the problem by establishing liability for corrupt actions and the introduction of liability for bribery, trading in influence and other corrupt actions. These reforms are part of a long-term effort to undergo judicial reform within the framework of European integration while also strengthening Ukraine’s democratic society.

NOTE: There is also a controversy surrounding the former Prime Minister of Ukraine (Tymoshenko) who has been convicted and jailed on corruption charges. It is a complex issue — she definitely was a Putin crony and there is an independent investigation going on now — but this is more about Ukraine’s elections, its geopolitical importance and encouraging the current (and likely next) Ukrainian
administration. If you have questions about the former PM, let me know.

Exit polls provided to bloggers:

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“Observer statements” for bloggers to quote:

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