Firm founder and chairman J.C. Watts Jr. is a former star quarterback at the University of Oklahoma who was considered an up-and-coming star in Republican political circles during his eight years representing Oklahoma’s 4th District in Congress, from 1995 to 2003.
The Watts Partners website does not mention South Sudan. And the firm submitted required disclosures to the Justice Department only after the Center for Public Integrity inquired about the relationship. Filings showed that Watts Partners met with lawmakers, State Department officials and nonprofits to discuss sanctions and U.S.-South Sudan relations.
Steve Pruitt, a senior partner at Watts Partners who worked with South Sudan, said the goal of the contract was “to help the government develop and increase communications with U.S. policymakers” concerning humanitarian aid and peace talks.
The contract was successful, he said, because in the end, parties signed the August peace agreement. And as for concerns over human rights violations, Pruitt said he was unaware of the government’s and opposition’s involvement in such acts.
“I have no direct knowledge on the part of either party as to what kind of atrocities, if you will, were being perpetrated,” he said. “I really can’t speak to that. I think our whole objective was to use our knowledge of the U.S. system and resources to help bring peace, and I think that’s what we focused on.”
The list goes on. KRL International began working on behalf of South Sudan in February 2014 to provide “a communications and advocacy program in support of efforts to consolidate peace, reconciliation and the development of priorities,” according to the contract.
The company describes itself online as a boutique consulting firm that tries to “bridge the divide between the United States and the world’s emerging markets.” Headed by longtime international consultant K. Riva Levinson, other KRL International clients include the government of Liberia, for which the firm writes that it has “sustained an aggressive advocacy effort” on its website.
Working on the South Sudan account was Eric Chinje, a Cameroonian national, who formerly worked for the World Bank. The contract cost South Sudan $600,000 and ended in May 2015.
KRL International was first introduced to its client in November 2013 before the outbreak of war, when South Sudan invited the firm to its country, KRL’s managing director Chris Beatty said in an email. The firm “returned to the country in February 2014, at the height of the conflict, to support mediating efforts to consolidate peace and reconciliation” Beatty continued. He did not respond to questions about human rights concerns in South Sudan.
The super-connected Podesta Group also worked for South Sudan, collecting $480,000 for its representation from March 2014 to December 2015, disclosures show. In regard to its global work, the firm’s website says it “knows where to go, who to talk to and what makes them listen.” One of the services offered by its global group is “reputation management.”
The company provided research, communicated with the press and lawmakers and counseled South Sudan on strengthening its ties to the U.S., the contract shows. In its outreach, the firm contacted dozens of members of Congress, State Department officials, nonprofits and newspapers, meeting with several in person to discuss U.S.-South Sudan relations.
Firm leader Tony Podesta, one of the Democratic party’s more active fundraisers over the years, has through March 31 helped Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign raise nearly a quarter-million dollars, federal records show.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Shortly after South Sudan gained independence, then-secretary Clinton welcomed the new government, saying, “We will work with you, we will stand with you, we will support you.” But her tenure as secretary ended in early 2013, 10 months before factional fighting broke out.
Podesta Group employees working on the account included a number of former high-ranking government advisers and Washington insiders.