A lobbying firm founded by former Trump aides has roped in some huge clients like Citgo and Altria, but it has some limits, too

Key Points
  • Michael Cohen wasn't the only one with ties to President Donald Trump trying to rope in billion-dollar companies.
  • Former campaign advisors at Avenue Strategies were doing the same — with broader reach and apparently much more success.
  • Tobacco giant Altria hired the firm to help with a strategy to figure out how to craft compelling messages to fight back against regulators, sources told CNBC.
A pack of Marlboro brand cigarettes is arranged for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Michael Cohen wasn't the only one with ties to President Donald Trump trying to rope in billion-dollar companies. Former campaign advisors at Avenue Strategies were doing the same — with broader reach and apparently much more success.

The firm, which was founded by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and senior campaign advisor Barry Bennett, put together a list of mainly foreign clients starting shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Lewandowski left the firm almost a year ago, months after its founding, but Bennett remains a partner.

The Avenue Strategies client list has included Venezuelan petroleum giant Citgo and tobacco company Altria, which is based in Virginia, according to sources and lobbying disclosure forms reviewed by CNBC.

Altria did not use the firm for lobbying, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter who declined to be named. Rather, the tobacco titan turned to Avenue Strategies for help with navigating the voter registration database. This was part of a strategy to figure out how to craft compelling messages through TV and web ads in an effort to fight attempts to further regulate the tobacco industry, according to the sources.

Avenue Strategies officials at the time were paid as much as $10,000, depending on the project for Altria, sources said.

The Daily Beast first reported that Altria had a consulting deal with Avenue Strategies, but details of the arrangement are being reported here for the first time.

As one of the largest producers of tobacco, cigarettes and related products, the company spends more on lobbyists than its competitors. The company shelled out more than $10 million in 2017 in an effort to push forward their agenda on a variety of issues, from tax reform to border security, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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Altria remains the top lobbying spender among tobacco companies so far this year, paying $2 million to firms such as Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Field, Crossroad Strategies and McGuire Woods, records show. Altria is no longer an Avenue Strategies client.

Altria's CEO, Martin J. Barrington, was also a backer of Republican efforts during the 2016 elections and has given a majority of his support this year to his companies' political action committee, which distributed those contributions to political causes on both sides of the aisle.

Beyond the PAC, Barrington gave $20,000 in 2016 to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's Victory Fund and $10,000 to a PAC backing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, federal election commission records show.

Representatives for Avenue Strategies and Altria did not return requests for comment.

A relationship with Venezuelan-owned Citgo

Citgo is one of the bigger companies that signed on to work with the firm in May 2017, according to disclosure forms. It is owned by the Venezuelan government and headquartered in Houston.

An oil tanker passes storage tanks at the Citgo Refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Eddie Seal | Bloomberg | Getty Images

So far this year, according to first-quarter reports, Avenue Strategies has brought in $80,000 for its efforts on behalf of Citgo, including lobbying the White House and the Treasury, Energy and State departments. The intention: to emphasize the "potential impact of U.S. energy and foreign policy restrictions" on Citgo, according to disclosure forms. Avenue Strategies has made approximately $320,000 since making the deal with Citgo last year.

Before the deal was struck, however, Citgo was a backer of Lewandowski's and Bennett's old boss, Donald Trump. According to Federal Election Commission records, Citgo contributed $500,000 to Trump's inaugural committee, making the oil and gas company among the group's top donors. The lobbying registration filing, which is a formal announcement describing the agreement between a lobbying firm and a separate company, was signed in May.

In August 2017, Trump signed financial sanctions against Venezuela but excluded Citgo. The sanctions were meant to punish the Venezuelan government as it moved to rewrite the country's constitution and consolidate power. Citgo, however, was allowed to operate as normal, and at the time, White House officials described the exemption as an effort "to mitigate harm to the American and Venezuelan people."

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The White House and the Treasury, Energy and State departments did not return requests for comment, nor did Citgo.

Not every meeting or discussion led to a deal

In early 2017, representatives of Israeli security consulting firm Mer Security and Communications Systems approached Avenue Strategies about helping their client, President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to try to set up a meeting with Trump, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

At the time, leaders of the firm pushed back and refused to help Kabila secure the access he sought, sources say.

Mer Security did not return requests for comment nor did the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo president has been accused of corruption for a variety of reasons. For instance, Kabila has been under fire for staying on longer than two terms, which is the legal limit. After his second term, however, the government continued to push back the elections in order for him to stay in power.

The American University of Dubai also tried to get in touch with Avenue Strategies officials to see whether they could help provide a potential graduation speaker from the firm's list of contacts inside and outside the White House, according to sources. The firm did not comply with the school's request, according to those familiar with the outreach.

The university did not return a request for comment.

Corey Lewandowski
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

Lewandowski's next moves

Working with foreign entities and major corporations wasn't always the objective of Avenue Strategies.

When Lewandowski was in charge, the firm focused more on small U.S. companies looking for lobbying assistance, records show. However, he stepped down from Avenue Strategies in May 2017 after he was accused of peddling access to the White House while also not having the proper paperwork to run the firm.

Before his departure, lobbying disclosure reports indicate his office started working with precision medical company Flow Health Inc., energy consulting group Redhorse Corp. and financial services company Community Choice Financial.

Lewandowski, in a text message to CNBC, said he had no involvement with the Citgo deal.

Since his departure, Lewandowski continued his work as what's become known in Washington, D.C., as a "Trump whisperer" but for his own private organization, Strategic Advisers LLC, which is labeled as a government and public affairs consulting firm.

On Monday, Lewandowski confirmed that he would join Vice President Mike Pence's Great America PAC.