British government pays US lobbying firm to improve transatlantic relations
Quote:O'Brien & Associates, a Washington-based firm of lobbyists, has received more than $500,000 of British taxpayers' money over the past four years.
The lobbying firm – whose president has donated money to both Republican and Democrat politicians – specialises in working on behalf of major defence companies in the American capital.
The controversial arrangement has been ordered by the Ministry of Defence, although official records show the contract is being handled by the British Embassy in Washington.
The official records disclose that the firm has been retained for "lobbying activity" by the British Embassy for "trade and procurement", particularly defence contracts. It is also helping with "US-UK relationship building".
It is not clear why the Ministry of Defence requires this assistance and why it does not fall under the remit of activities normally undertaken by foreign-based diplomats.
Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador in Washington, is paid about £180,000 annually and was recently disclosed to be one of the best paid public officials, earning more than the Prime Minister.
He was Tony Blair's former defence and foreign affairs adviser and should therefore have excellent contacts to represent British interests.
He also runs the biggest British Embassy in the world, employing 500 aides whose expertise is supposed to be lobbying foreign officials and politicians.
Last night, a spokeswoman for the embassy insisted Sir Nigel had no role in the lobbying agreement which was ordered by the Ministry of Defence in London.
The Ministry of Defence is currently faced with widespread cuts which could lead to the downsizing of the RAF, The Daily Telegraph disclosed on Saturday.
Pressure groups and former ministers have criticised the lobbying contract. Kevan Jones, a former defence minister under Gordon Brown, said: "If this is adding specific technical knowledge which can't be provided by
the foreign office, then that is one thing, but if it is just paying for advice and work that should be provided by FCO officials, then that raises questions marks about whether it is good value for money."
A spokesman from the TaxPayers' Alliance said: "The British Embassy shouldn't be spending taxpayers' money on lobbyists to do the work they should be doing themselves.
"Of course it's important that we cultivate good transatlantic relationships, but the public shouldn't have to pay twice. Too often the government resorts to costly external help, and now money is tight it's time to cut these expensive overheads".
The lobbying deal is thought to have initially been signed in 2006 but remains in place today.
The disclosure of the contract is likely to infuriate David Cameron, who is an outspoken critic of the dangers of the lobbying industry.
Earlier this year, he said that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen. It's an issue that … has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money".
The Coalition has recently banned other public bodies from hiring firms to lobby Whitehall officials and Government ministers.
Unlike most lobbying firms, O'Brien and Associates does not have a website or produce any publicly-available information about its activities.
However, it is run by David O'Brien and James Gentry, who have both attended functions with British Embassy aides.
Mr O'Brien is understood to have worked as a lobbyist for over 20 years. He has also held "senior positions in the Federal Government",
although these posts have not been publicly disclosed and is thought to have worked with members of Congress committees specialising in the armed services.
He has been lobbying US politicians on the US-UK joint strike fighter project on behalf of the British Government. The embassy is now listed as one of Mr O'Brien's biggest clients.
Mr O'Brien is a donor to politicians seeking re-election. In 2008, he gave money to at least 15 different politicians including both John McCain, the republican Presidential candidate, and Hillary Clinton, the democrat secretary of state.
Other clients of his firm include Cobham, the British defence firm, and the Dutch Embassy in Washington.
A MOD spokesman said: "British Embassy based staff have a contract with O'Brien & Associates for services which advance British defence interests in the United States. Their advice and support has proven vital in pursuing a range of defence equipment, trade and industrial issues. The support they provide helps us deliver lower costs and better equipment for the British Armed Forces."
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