Following a Washington Post story in November on Esposito’s business, the FBI is investigating to determine whether Esposito may have defrauded his clients or engaged in any other type of financial fraud, the people said.
Esposito did not respond to phone messages or emails requesting comment, and no one answered the door at his home in Sterling on Friday morning.
Neighbors said about half a dozen cars arrived at his home at about 7 a.m. Thursday and didn’t leave for several hours. People wearing FBI jackets and suits came in and out of Esposito’s home.
“They’re really nice people,” neighbor Richard Tate, who lives across the street, said of the Esposito family on Friday. “So I was surprised.”
On Friday, there were Rolls-Royce and Lincoln SUVs parked in front of Esposito’s house. On social media, Esposito has posted photos of himself in other luxury cars and wrote of the pleasure he takes in buying and selling Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.
An FBI spokesperson declined to comment.
Colin Whittington, a spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, said it assisted with an FBI operation in Sterling on Thursday morning but referred questions to the FBI.
Esposito’s firm, Federal Advocates, has offices at 1666 K St. NW, which were also subject to search, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation.
D.C. police spokesman Sean Hickman said the District’s police force did not participate in the FBI operation at Esposito’s office.
A person who answered the phone at Federal Advocates said the office was closed for the holidays and declined to say whether he was aware of the raid.
After the 2016 election, Esposito sought to join the crop of loyalists who follow every new administration in trying to climb to the top of the Washington influence machine. His ascent was particularly notable, however, because his connections to Trump’s world don’t hold up to scrutiny — and because he had previously represented himself as a Democrat.
After the Post’s story in November, Trump bluntly disputed Esposito’s claims to have a “strong personal and professional relationship with President Trump.”
Trump tweeted: “I don’t know, to the best of my knowledge, a man named Michael Esposito. . . . I don’t like him using my name to build his consulting company, or whatever. Please advise his clients and Administration officials accordingly.”
Federal Advocates collected $4.66 million from lobbying clients in 2018, up from $3.25 million in 2017 and $907,000 in 2016, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The explosive growth led Bloomberg Government news service to dub Federal Advocates the top-performing lobbying firm in 2017.
One client announced Friday that it had terminated its contract with Federal Advocates: the Premium Cigar Association, which paid the firm $90,000 during the first nine months of 2019.
Before the raid, some of Esposito’s clients said they were reconsidering their relationship with him, while others have stuck with him.
Polk County, Iowa, Esposito’s top-paying municipal client, is seeking new bids for a federal lobbyist for the first time since Federal Advocates landed the contract a decade ago. The contract, which expired at the end of the year, has been renewed annually in the past. The county paid the firm $60,000 a month.
“No county our size pays that much,” said Matt McCoy, a county supervisor who said Esposito has boasted to him about his close ties to the Trump administration. “I think they were clearly lying to us and misrepresenting things, which puts us in a terrible position.”
Another Polk County supervisor, Robert Brownell, said that the firm had effectively lobbied on the county’s behalf but that “compared to what other counties our size are paying, the contract is out of whack.”
Representatives of the National Cannabis Industry Association and Canndescent, a California-based company that sells luxury cannabis products, said they would reconsider contracting with Federal Advocates. “I can’t ignore the reporting that came out for sure,” said Canndescent’s chief executive Adrian Sedlin. “I want to hear his point of view.”
Other major clients, including Chinese tech giant Huawei — which signed Federal Advocates to one of the largest lobbying contracts in Washington this year — said before news of the raid that they planned to remain clients of the firm. Federal Advocates collected $1.65 million from Huawei in a three-month period this year, according to lobbying records.
“We obviously vetted him and chose to work with him,” said Huawei spokesman Rob Manfredo. “I haven’t heard any reason that we wouldn’t.”
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.