NEW ORLEANS - An oil spill that has been quietly leaking millions of barrels into the Gulf of Mexico has gone unplugged for so long that it now verges on becoming one of the worst offshore disasters in U.S. history.
Between 300 and 700 barrels of oil per day have been spewing from a site 12 miles off the Louisiana coast since 2004, when an oil-production platform owned by Taylor Energy sank in a mudslide triggered by Hurricane Ivan. Many of the wells have not been capped, and federal officials estimate that the spill could continue through this century. With no fix in sight, the Taylor offshore spill is threatening to overtake BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster as the largest ever.
As oil continues to spoil the Gulf, the Trump administration is proposing the largest expansion of leases for the oil and gas industry, with the potential to open nearly the entire outer continental shelf to offshore drilling. That includes the Atlantic coast, where drilling hasn't happened in more than a century and where hurricanes hit with double the regularity of the Gulf.
Expansion plans come despite fears that the offshore oil industry is poorly regulated and that the planet needs to decrease fossil fuels to combat climate change, as well as the knowledge that 14 years after Ivan took down Taylor's platform, the broken wells are releasing so much oil that researchers needed respirators to study the damage.
"I don't think people know that we have this ocean in the United States that's filled with industry," said Scott Eustis, an ecologist for the Gulf Restoration Network, as his six-seat plane circled the spill site on a flyover last summer. On the horizon, a forest of oil platforms rose up from the Gulf's waters, and all that is left of the doomed Taylor platform are rainbow-colored oil slicks that are often visible for miles. He cannot imagine similar development in the Atlantic, where the majority of coastal state governors, lawmakers, attorneys general and residents have aligned against the administration's proposal.
The Taylor Energy spill is largely unknown outside Louisiana because of the company's effort to keep it secret in the hopes of protecting its reputation and proprietary information about its operations, according to a lawsuit that eventually forced the company to reveal its cleanup plan. The spill was hidden for six years before environmental watchdog groups stumbled on oil slicks while monitoring the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster a few miles north of the Taylor site in 2010.
The Interior Department is fighting an effort by Taylor Energy to walk away from the disaster. The company sued Interior in federal court, seeking the return of about $450 million left in a trust it established with the government to fund its work to recover part of the wreckage and locate wells buried under 100 feet of muck.
Taylor Energy declined to comment. The company has argued that there's no evidence to prove any of the wells are leaking. Last month, the Justice Department submitted an independent analysis showing that the spill was much larger than the one-to-55 barrels per day that the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center (NRC) claimed, using data supplied by the oil company.
The author of the analysis, Oscar Garcia-Pineda, a geoscience consultant who specializes in remote sensing of oil spills, said there were several instances when the NRC reported low estimates on the same days he was finding heavy layers of oil in the field.
"There is abundant evidence that supports the fact that these reports from NRC are incorrect," Garcia-Pineda wrote. Later he said: "My conclusion is that NRC reports are not reliable."
In an era of climate change and warmer open waters, the storms are becoming more frequent and violent. Starting with Ivan in 2004, several hurricanes battered or destroyed more than 150 platforms in just four years.
On average, 330,000 gallons of crude are spilled each year in Louisiana from offshore platforms and onshore oil tanks, according to a state agency that monitors them.
The Gulf is one of the richest and most productive oil and gas regions in the world, expected to yield more than 600 million barrels this year alone, nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. oil production. Another 40 billion barrels rest underground, waiting to be recovered, government analysts say.
About 2,000 platforms stand in the waters off the Bayou State. Nearly 2,000 others are off the coasts of its neighbors, Texas and Mississippi. On top of that are nearly 50,000 miles of active and inactive pipelines carrying oil and minerals to the shore.
And the costs are high.
For every 1,000 wells in state and federal waters, there's an average of 20 uncontrolled releases of oil - or blowouts - every year. A fire erupts offshore every three days, on average, and hundreds of workers are injured annually.
BP has paid or set aside $66 billion for fines, legal settlements and cleanup of the 168 million-gallon spill - a sum that the oil giant could, painfully, afford. But many companies with Gulf leases and drilling operations are small, financially at-risk and hard-pressed to pay for an accident approaching that scale.
One of them was Taylor Energy.
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Taylor Energy was a giant in New Orleans.
Owned by Patrick Taylor, a magnate and philanthropist who launched an ambitious college scholarship program for low-income students, it was once the only individually owned company to explore for and produce oil in the Gulf of Mexico, according to his namesake foundation.
Taylor made what was arguably his most ambitious transaction in 1995, when he took over an oil-production platform once operated by BP. Standing in more than 450 feet of water, it was about 40 stories tall. Its legs were pile-driven into the muddy ocean floor and funnels were attached to 28 drilled oil wells.
At its peak, the oil company helped make Taylor and his wife, Phyllis, the richest couple in the Big Easy.
That investment was obliterated on Sept. 15, 2004, when Hurricane Ivan unleashed 145 mph winds and waves that topped 70 feet as it roared into the Gulf. Deep underwater, the Category 4 storm shook loose tons of mud and buckled the platform.
The avalanche sank the colossal structure and knocked it "170 meters down slope of its original location," researcher Sarah Josephine Harrison wrote in a postmortem of the incident.
More than 620 barrels of crude oil stacked on its deck came tumbling down with it. The sleeves that conducted oil from its wells were mangled and ripped away. A mixture of steel and leaking oil was buried in 150 feet of mud.
Less than two months after the storm, Patrick F. Taylor died of a heart infection at 67, leaving a fortune for philanthropy and a massive cleanup bill.
Taylor Energy reported the spill to the Coast Guard, which monitored the site for more than half a decade without making the public fully aware of the mess it was seeing. Four years after the leak started, in July 2008, the Coast Guard informed the company that the spill had been deemed "a continuous, unsecured crude oil discharge" that posed "a significant threat to the environment," according to a lawsuit between Taylor Energy and its insurer.
Taylor Energy made a deal with federal officials to establish a $666 million trust to stop the spill.
It would be a delicate, risky operation. Taylor and the contractors it hired were asked to somehow locate wells in a nearly impenetrable grave of mud and debris, then cap them. Failing that, it could create a device to contain the leak.
But they were forbidden from boring or drilling through the muck for fear that they would strike a pipe or well, risking the kind of catastrophe on the scale of the BP disaster a few miles south. That precaution slowed the pace of the salvage operation.
"We had no idea that any of that was going on," said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Taylor Energy spent a fortune to pluck the deck of the platform from the ocean and plug about a third of the wells. It built a kind of shield to keep the crude from rising.
But no matter what it did, the oil kept leaking.
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In 2010, six years after the oil leak started, scientists studying the BP spill realized something was amiss with the oil slicks they were seeing.
"We were flying to monitor the BP disaster and we kept seeing these slicks, but they were nowhere near the BP spill," said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, which monitors the water from boats and planes.
Satellite images confirmed the oddity.
"It was there all the time, longer than the BP spill," said John Amos, founder and president of Sky Truth, a nonprofit organization that tracks pollution.
Under the Oil Pollution Act, companies are obligated to report hazardous spills to the NRC, which maintains a database of chemical pollution.
No law compels the companies or the federal government to raise public awareness, but the Clean Water Act clearly calls for citizen involvement.
Environmentalists took Taylor Energy to court.
In their lawsuit, the conservationists called the agreement between Taylor Energy and the federal government a secret deal "that was inconsistent with national policy."
That policy, they argued, was made clear in the Clean Water Act, which mandates "public participation in the . . . enforcement of any regulation." Citizen participation, the act says, "shall be provided for, encouraged and assisted."
Taylor Energy and the Coast Guard - which is part of a Unified Command of federal agencies that includes the Interior Department, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency - did not live up to the policy. In fact, the public wasn't made aware of the spill even after a private firm tested fish in the area and submitted an assessment to Taylor Energy in 2009 that said "there is an acceptable risk to humans if fish from the . . . area are consumed."
"Taylor has failed to provide the public with information regarding the pace and extent of the oil leaks and Taylor's efforts to control the leaks," the lawsuit said.
It would take another three years before the government revealed an even deeper truth. Taylor Energy had been playing down the severity of the spill. An Associated Press investigation in 2015 determined that it was about 20 times worse than the company had reported.
Taylor Energy had argued that the leak was two gallons per day; the Coast Guard finally said it was 84 gallons or more, and was almost certainly coming from any of 16 wells.
"There's a fine for not reporting, but none for underreporting," Amos said. "If it's only three gallons a day, who cares, that's a trivial problem."
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Nearly a decade after the oil platform went down, the government determined that the actual level of oil leaking into the Gulf was between one and 55 barrels per day. Now, the new estimate dwarfs that: up to 700 barrels per day. Each barrel contains 42 gallons.
Despite that finding, NOAA is still in the early stages of a resource assessment of marine life that could explain the impact of the Taylor Energy spill, and is more than three years behind a deadline to issue a biological determination of the BP spill's impact on marine life.
In July, Earthjustice, a nonprofit legal organization that represents conservation groups, sued NOAA for failing to produce a timely study.
Like Eustis, Amos said Atlantic coast residents should be wary. But in that region, where beaches and tourism enrich nearly every state, distrust over offshore leasing and drilling is bipartisan.
Governors, state lawmakers and attorneys general lashed out at the administration's proposal. New Jersey passed a law that forbids oil and infrastructure in state waters three miles from shore, crippling any effort to run pipelines from platforms to the shore. Other states passed similar laws.
In the Carolinas, where Hurricane Florence's winds topped 150 mph and produced a monster 83-foot wave as it neared landfall, governors who represent both political parties implored Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to rethink the plan.
Meanwhile, in the Gulf, Taylor Energy was down to a single employee - its president, William Pecue.
At a 2016 public forum in Baton Rouge, Pecue made the case for allowing the company to walk away from its obligation to clean up the mess. Taylor Energy had been sold to a joint venture of South Korean companies in 2008, the same year it started the $666 million trust. A third of the money had been spent on cleanup, and only a third of the leaking wells had been fixed. But Pecue wanted to recover $450 million, arguing the spill could not be contained.
"I can affirmatively say that we do believe this was an act of God under the legal definition," Pecue said. In other words, Taylor Energy had no control over the hurricane.
But Ivan was no freak storm.
It was one of more than 600 that have been tracked in the Gulf since records were kept in the mid-1800s, according to NOAA.
Fourteen years after the Taylor spill, and 10 years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the federal government still doesn't know the spills' full impact on marine life. And there is no economic analysis showing the value of the oil flowing into the sea and potential royalties lost to taxpayers. Activists also want an analysis to determine if oil is ruining marshland and making its way to beaches.
"Even though oil did not reach a lot of these beaches [during the BP spill], the fact that the public heard about it, it killed the beach economy for quite some time," Sarthou said. "You don't want to go to a beach with tar balls or oil washing up."
At the time, Sarthou was unaware that Garcia-Pineda was conducting a study in the Gulf that would show the spill was far worse than imagined - up to 10 times worse than what the federal government was reporting.
As the saga in the Gulf plays out, wary officials on the Atlantic coast are anxiously watching President Donald Trump's proposal to offer federal offshore leases.
It would take at least a decade for Atlantic drilling to start. The industry would first want to conduct seismic testing to determine the amount of oil and gas in the ground. Depending on the results, companies would bid for the leases. Interior has yet to approve seismic testing, which some studies say harms marine life, including large mammals such as dolphins and whales.
Oil and gas representatives say energy development off that coast could provide South Carolina with $2.7 billion in annual economic growth, 35,000 jobs and potentially lower heating costs for residents struggling to pay their bills.
During a federal informational hearing in South Carolina to explain the Trump administration's plan in February, Mark Harmon, the director of a state unit of the American Petroleum Institute, stressed that point. "Ultimately, it means the potential for jobs and reinvestment in the community," he said.
Once the oil industry gains a foothold in a region, it's game over, said Chris Eaton, an Earthjustice attorney.
"A major part of the economy starts to change" as jobs with pay approaching $100,000 transform a tourism market to oil. "If it gets going, that train isn't going to stop," he said. "Let's talk about what's happening in the Gulf before we move into the Atlantic."
WASHINGTON - In March 2018, the Saudi ambassador to Washington summoned a cadre of high-priced Washington lobbyists to his embassy to grapple with a delicate, double-pronged challenge.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was preparing for his first official visit to the United States, just four months after he consolidated power by ordering the detention of members of the royal family and business elite. At the same time, Congress was facing a vote on a bipartisan resolution seeking to end U.S. support for a Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of civilians since 2015.
During an afternoon meeting on March 12, Saudi Ambassador Khalid bin Salman sat at the head of a long table in an embassy conference room, flanked by a whiteboard detailing the prince's itinerary. His assembled advisers included Norm Coleman, a former Minnesota senator; Marc Lampkin, a veteran Capitol Hill adviser who served on President Trump's transition team; and Democratic strategist Alfred Mottur, according to people familiar with the gathering.
Eight days after their meeting, the congressional resolution aimed at extracting the United States from what the United Nations labeled "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world" would be defeated - hours after Mohammed was warmly welcomed at the White House at the start of his nationwide tour.
Those twin successes reflected the power of a sophisticated Saudi influence machine that has shaped policy and perceptions in Washington for decades, batting back critiques of the oil-rich kingdom by doling out millions to lobbyists, blue-chip law firms, prominent think tanks and large defense contractors. In 2017, Saudi payments to lobbyists and consultants in Washington more than tripled over the previous year, public filings show.
The strength of the Saudi operation is now being tested amid a global condemnation of the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi earlier this month in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul - a death the kingdom belatedly acknowledged last week.
Beyond their spending in Washington, the Saudis have enjoyed a priceless advantage: a warm relationship with the president, who has done business with its wealthy citizens, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who developed a close bond with the crown prince as he crafted the administration's Middle East policy. The ties build on a long-standing relationship between past administrations and the Saudi royal family.
The kingdom also cultivated opinion leaders through aggressive charm offensives. Powerful government figures - including deputy intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, who was fired for Khashoggi's killing - have visited Washington to court reporters and think tank analysts.
The Saudi ambassador regularly hosts intimate dinners in Washington and even occasional galas, such as a lavish event at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium honoring this year's visit of the crown prince. The kingdom's lobbying team was dispatched to ensure that leading members of congressional foreign relations panels attended, public filings show.
Earlier this year, Saudi officials even offered Super Bowl tickets and chartered flights to the event to media stars such as Jake Tapper of CNN and Bret Baier of Fox News, according to Tapper and a Fox News spokeswoman. (Both said they turned the offers down.)
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return multiple requests for comment.
A handful of lobbyists and think tanks have declared they will turn off the Saudi money spigot. Yet to be determined is whether that marks a tipping point in Washington's ties to Saudi Arabia or merely a lull before business returns to normal.
"The goodwill the Saudis have enjoyed in Washington, either because of lobbying efforts or their perceived value as an ally, is something to watch in the wake of the Khashoggi incident," said Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who says Congress has abdicated constitutional responsibilities by supporting the battle in Yemen without declaring war.
Coleman - a dean of the Saudi lobby in Washington and an influential GOP figure who also co-founded a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. - said national interests are at stake if the U.S.-Saudi partnership does not endure.
"The relationship with Saudi Arabia is critically important, and its partnership in confronting the Iranian threat is critical for U.S. security, for security in the region, including the security of Israel," he said.
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In the past two years, the Saudis have intensified their efforts to cement the U.S. relationship. The kingdom's spending on U.S. lobbying and consulting, which had dropped from $14.3 million in 2015 to $7.7 million in 2016, surged to $27.3 million last year, according to public records. More than 200 people have registered as agents on behalf of Saudi interests since 2016, according to lobbying documents posted by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Among those on the payroll have been some of Washington's top public relations and lobbying shops: the McKeon Group, helmed by Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; BGR Group, a firm founded by prominent Republicans Ed Rogers and Haley Barbour; the Glover Park Group, which was launched by Democratic political strategists including Joe Lockhart and Carter Eskew; and the now-defunct Podesta Group, the former firm of Democratic superlobbyist Tony Podesta.
Rogers and Eskew are both contributing opinion writers for The Washington Post. Last week, both of their firms announced they were dropping their representation of Saudi Arabia. The Post had told them they could not continue to write for The Post and lobby for Saudi Arabia, according to spokeswoman Kristine Coratti Kelly.
Separately, Saudi money - and funds from its close ally, the United Arab Emirates - have also flowed into think tanks throughout Washington, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Brookings Institution and the Middle East Institute. All three said last week that they are ending or reconsidering Saudi grants.
"One of the foreign policy truisms force-fed in Washington is that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a special, unbreakable relationship," said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and leading critic of the war in Yemen. "At least everybody who is smart and knows about foreign policy who walks into your office tells you that. But as it turns out, a lot of those people are getting gulf money."
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Saudi money has been the Middle East Institute, which touts itself as "an unbiased source of information and analysis on this critical region." The organization is chaired by Richard Clarke, who held senior national security positions during the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Between 2016 and 2017, the think tank received between $1.25 million and $4 million in funding from Saudi interests, according to its public disclosures.
In 2016, MEI received $20 million from UAE - which has backed the Saudi government's claims regarding Khashoggi's death - to renovate its headquarters.
The institute also has other ties to the kingdom. Michael Petruzzello - who took on the kingdom as a client after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and whose communications firm Qorvis MSLGROUP reported $6.3 million in lobbying fees from the Saudis in 2016 and 2017 - was a member of the MEI board until earlier this year, according to a spokesman for the institute. And Jack Moore, director of the Washington office of the North American subsidiary of the Saudi government-owned oil company, is currently on the board.
Petruzzello did not respond to requests for comment. Moore did not respond to a request through the institute.
Scott Zuke, a spokesman for the institute, said that it makes clear to donors that its scholars are independent. "We do not accept any donation from a government, individual, corporation or foundation that seeks to restrict our academic freedom," he said.
The pro-Saudi lobby in Washington ramped up its efforts after a major setback in fall 2016 - the success of a bill pushed by the Sept. 11 families, known as Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which allowed them to sue the Saudi government over its alleged support for the terrorist attacks. Of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks, 15 were Saudi citizens.
In passing the law, Congress overrode Barack Obama's veto for the first time in his presidency, despite arguments by administration officials that the measure could expose U.S. officials to similar lawsuits abroad.
The Saudi government, which has denied any ties to the 9/11 terrorists, kept lobbying against the law in early 2017, pushing amendments that supporters say would have gutted it. Military veterans were recruited by Saudi consultants to come to Washington to tell Congress the measure could open them up to potential litigation.
"The Saudis are very dirty in their fighting," said Terry Strada, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center and is one of the lead plaintiffs in the litigation against the kingdom. "Veterans were showing up in Washington using language identical to Saudi talking points. Let's face it, the only people they thought could go up against 9/11 families and be successful were veterans."
Some of the veterans were not told that Saudi interests were backing their visit, according to a complaint filed last year with the Justice Department by 9/11 families. The veterans were put up at the Trump International Hotel, one of the president's properties, and the kingdom ultimately paid the $270,000 tab, lobbying records show.
"It's an awesome trip and basically like a 5 star vacation :)" read one email invitation filed as part of the complaint.
David Casler, a retired Marine sergeant living in Sacramento, said he thought a nonprofit veterans group was paying to fly him to Washington and put him up in the Trump hotel. It wasn't until after he arrived in Washington that he figured out the Saudis were paying the bill, he said.
"We realized we were pawns," Casler said.
Petruzzello, who helped organize the veterans' campaign, did not return request for comment. He told Yahoo News last year that his firm followed lobbying laws, adding that allegations that veterans were deceived "rings hollow to me."
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As the Republican presidential nominee, Trump called Obama's veto of JASTA "shameful" and "one of the low points of his presidency."
But he and his son-in-law were soon forging personal relationships with key Saudi allies and other Middle Eastern leaders. Early on, introductions were made thanks in part to Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a Trump friend of three decades who does business in the Middle East and has personal connections with powerful figures in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.
Barrack declined to comment.
In May 2016, Barrack introduced Kushner to the influential UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, a major Saudi ally, according to a person with knowledge of the episode. And Barrack talked to Trump about meeting other regional leaders, including the emir of Qatar. And he talked up the promise of a powerful Saudi prince named Mohammed bin Salman, according to the person.
A few months after Trump's inauguration, Kushner and Mohammed met in person for the first time at a lunch in the White House's regal State Dining Room. They immediately hit it off, conducting so many one-on-one phone calls in the following weeks that some intelligence officials raised concerns that Kushner was freelancing diplomacy, The Post previously reported.
In the days preceding and after the prince's visit, the embassy's @ArabiaNow Twitter feed - run by Qorvis MSLGROUP, according to lobbying records - offered a sunny view of the oil-rich kingdom and its role in Yemen.
On March 10, 2017, @ArabiaNow tweeted, "Saudi Arabia steps up its assistance to care for ill and injured in Yemen," linking to a post detailing Saudi-led humanitarian assistance - claims that human rights activists dismiss as propaganda.
Around the same time, one of Mohammed's rivals was seeking his own gateway to the administration. In May 2017, the Saudi Ministry of Interior - at the time headed by Mohammed bin Nayef, then next in line for the throne - paid $5.4 million to a firm led by a Trump campaign adviser and Oregon winery owner named Robert Stryk, according to public filings.
Just one month later, when Mohammed was elevated by King Salman over Nayef, the deal abruptly ended due to "regime change in Saudi Arabia," according to lobbying documents Stryk filed. Stryk declined to comment.
A few months after the White House lunch, Kushner persuaded Trump to choose Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip over the objections of other administration officials, The Post has reported.
White House officials declined to comment except to refer to an interview Trump gave The Post on Saturday, in which he played down Kushner's relationship with the crown prince.
"Jared doesn't do business with Saudi Arabia They're two young guys. Jared doesn't know him well or anything," the president said. "They are just two young people. They are the same age. They like each other I believe."
The crown prince was not the only Saudi official making the rounds in Washington. In town the same week was Assiri - the Saudi intelligence official late fired over Khashoggi's killing - who told reporters that the Trump administration had pledged to increase U.S. intelligence sharing and defense cooperation.
Days later, Assiri wrote an op-ed published on FoxNews.com that hailed the importance of the U.S.-Saudi partnership in fighting terrorism. Assiri's piece was entered into the congressional record by Rep. Edward Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Royce praised "General Assiri's support for intelligence sharing" and noted that "the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is central to the fight against terror," according to the congressional record.
It was at least the second swing through Washington by Assiri, who had also met with reporters in a May 2016 stop to discuss the war in Yemen. During that visit, Assiri was hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies for a discussion about human rights concerns in Yemen, according to the think tank.
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In March, facing the prince's upcoming visit and the Yemen vote, the Saudis' Washington machine whirred into action.
At the embassy, the ambassador laid out the schedule and list of cities and took suggestions on important people Mohammed should meet, according to people in attendance.
Coleman described the meeting as a routine planning session. Mottur confirmed he and Lampkin were in attendance on behalf of their firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Lampkin did not return a request for comment.
During the seven weeks leading up to the crown prince's visit and Yemen resolution vote, lobbyists reported 759 contacts with members of Congress, staffers, academics and reporters on behalf of the Saudi government, according to public records.
The kingdom was up against an unusual cross-party trio: Murphy, Lee and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who together were pushing to end American involvement in Yemen.
The United States has sided with the Saudi-led coalition in a civil war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, arguing that the military campaign is a necessary part of the war on terrorism.
"People seem to have a hard time believing their eyes in Yemen," said Murphy, a critic of the air war. "The Saudis are clearly bombing civilian targets over and over, and people don't want to believe it, which tells you how powerful their relationships are in Washington."
Andrea Prasow, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Washington, recalled talking with a key congressional aide about civilian casualties in Yemen and realizing that the aide was simultaneously receiving texts from Otaiba, the well-connected UAE ambassador who is a key advocate for the Saudis.
The day of the March 20 vote, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a rare appearance at lunches for both the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Senate, according to staffers, appealing to Congress not to pass the resolution. "They called out the big guns," said one top Senate aide.
The resolution failed to advance, 44-55.
The same day, the Saudi crown prince arrived in Washington, kicking off a three-week public relations blitz in which he met with entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.
His arrival was greeted with a piece on the website of the Middle East Institute by Fahad Nazer, identified as a guest contributor, who wrote: "The U.S. and the West should take note of the fundamental social changes taking place in Saudi Arabia and support Crown Prince Mohammed."
A link from Nazer's name goes to a short biography describing him as a "a columnist for the Saudi daily newspaper Arab News and a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington."
"The views he expresses are strictly his own," it says.
Nazer received $91,000 in consulting fees from the kingdom in 2017, filings show. Nazer told The Post that he does not lobby the administration or Congress and that he has followed all the laws regarding his consulting work for the embassy.
Zuke, the MEI spokesman, said it publishes essays expressing differing viewpoints.
Many institutions are now rethinking their Saudi connections in the wake of the death of Khashoggi, who Turkish authorities have concluded was deliberately targeted by a 15-man squad of Saudi agents who killed and dismembered him inside the diplomatic mission.
"For think tanks, as well as universities and museums, taking Saudi money is going to leave a stain for some time to come," said Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center at Dartmouth University, who has worked at Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On Friday, CSIS said that it is not proceeding with a $900,000 grant from the Saudi government to provide skills development training for its embassy in Washington.
"We still believe that the United States has an interest in sustaining the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia," said CSIS spokesman H. Andrew Schwartz in an email. "Most of what the U.S. wants to achieve in the Middle East becomes more difficult in the absence of such a relationship. But at this time, given the circumstances surrounding Mr. Khashoggi's killing, CSIS has decided to reassess its own relationship with the Kingdom."
Similarly, the Brookings Institution told BuzzFeed last week it was terminating the only research grant it had from the Saudis - a six-figure sum "to provide an analysis and evaluation of the Saudi think tank sector."
The Middle East Institute last week called on the Saudi authorities "to act swiftly to bring out the truth about what happened to Mr. Khashoggi and to hold accountable those responsible."
The think tank said it would decline Saudi funding - but "keep the matter under active review pending the outcome of the investigation."
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The Washingtomn Post's Emma Brown, Alice Crites, Karoun Demirjian and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.