A judge has ordered that one of the most prominent lobbyists of the Trump era, Barry Bennett, have his business assets partially frozen, according to court filings reviewed by POLITICO.
Earlier this month, a court sent Bennett formal notice that a default judgment was entered against him — meaning, because he did not comply with court orders, he is liable, and the only remaining legal issue is how much he owes in damages to a Republican consultant who sued him.
Bennett was campaign manager for Ben Carson’s 2016 campaign and then advised the Trump campaign. After Trump’s election, he and Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski opened a lobbying shop just blocks from the White House called Avenue Strategies. The firm’s international wing, Avenue Strategies Global, represented a host of big-spending clients over the years, including Citgo, Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko, and the governments of Qatar and Zimbabwe.
But things have changed. Just weeks after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Avenue Strategies closed down. Bennett opened a new lobbying firm, Bennett Strategies after Avenue Strategies shuttered. And now, according to the court documents POLITICO reviewed, a judge in Maryland has ordered Bennett’s assets partially frozen to satisfy the judgment entered against him and ruled that he owes damages to Republican consultant and pundit Ying Ma, who also worked on Carson’s campaign.
Bennett is one of a number of Trump World denizens to find Beltway-area fame followed by messy legal entanglements.
In March of 2019, Ma sued Bennett and Avenue Strategies Global in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Maryland, alleging that they violated a contract with her by declining to pay her finder’s fees for bringing in clients and backing out of a commitment to make her a partner at the firm.
On April 13, 2021, Ma asked the court to freeze Bennett’s assets. Her filing said Bennett failed to comply with an earlier court order to participate in discovery, causing “significant, unnecessary delays and expenses to this matter.”
Then Ma went further.
“Aside from breaching his contractual commitments to Plaintiff, Defendant has willfully attacked the character of Ying Ma … by engaging in dishonesty and defamation before federal authorities in a federal investigation for which he has been implicated (Plaintiff intends to file a separate complaint on the defamation charge),” the filing reads. “Bennett has attempted to defend his illicit activities to federal authorities by, among other things, falsely accusing Ying Ma, a patriotic American citizen, of being an intelligence asset of the Chinese Communist government.”
Ma alleged that this accusation against her demonstrated his “pattern of sleaziness and illegal behavior” and might have kept her from getting a government job that required a security clearance.
A source close to Bennett denied he was ever interviewed by federal authorities for any background investigation into Ma. In an interview with POLITICO earlier this month, Bennett suggested he was unsure about any federal investigation into him or his firm. “I hear rumors all the time,” he said.
Bennett added that he was unaware of the order appearing to partially freeze his assets until POLITICO called his attorney about the matter. “We never received any of the paperwork” seeking the order in the case before the judge ruled, Bennett said. It is unclear if the judge’s order regarding Bennett’s business assets has been enforced.
Judge Peter Hessler’s order has a handwritten notation that Ma’s motion to freeze Bennett’s business assets was granted “in part.” The order does not offer any further explanation. A court clerk told POLITICO that he could not offer any additional insight on the notation.
In court filings last month, Ma’s attorney claimed that, after the preliminary rounds of the suit, Bennett’s side ignored discovery orders and simply went dark.
“Since October 2020, [Bennett] has ceased responding to ALL phone calls and ALL email requests from Plaintiff,” Ma’s lawyer Albert Moseley II wrote. Moseley did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment for this story.
The court filings do not add any other detail on the federal investigation connected to Bennett. But two sources familiar with the matter told POLITICO that Justice Department officials have been making inquiries regarding Bennett’s lobbying work for foreign government clients.
Hessler initially set a trial for this week to determine how much Bennett and his defunct firm must pay Ma.
However, another judge, Robert Greenberg, postponed the trial after Bennett’s lawyers filed motions seeking to unwind the default judgment against their client.
Bennett’s attorneys contend they were never sent the motion to hold Bennett in default and freeze his assets. In a court filing last week, they also accuse Ma and Moseley of seeking “to extort a settlement” by maligning Bennett’s “stellar reputation” and “conspiring with a POLITICO reporter so that the court’s Order of Default could be made public so as to harm the reputation of Bennett.” That filing came after POLITICO first reached out to Bennett for this story.
Bennett’s lawyers also alleged that Ma and her attorney deliberately put the wrong case number on the default and asset-freezing order they proposed so that the court clerk would send it to the wrong lawyers.
The order signed by Hessler on April 19 does indeed bear the wrong docket number. However, it has Bennett’s name in the caption as the lead defendant and it was in the suit’s online docket and paper file when a POLITICO reporter visited the Rockville, Md., courthouse late last month.
Ma’s attorney said in a court filing that he never submitted a draft of the order to the court, so couldn’t be responsible for any error.
In the filing last week, Bennett’s attorneys also deny that he ever told federal authorities that he believed Ma to be a Chinese intelligence asset. “Mr. Bennett made no such statement,” Bennett’s lawyers said.
Ma’s suit says that she worked for Avenue in late 2017 and early 2018, trying to line up clients for the firm in Asia. She contends she did such outreach pursuant to a verbal employment agreement that Bennett said he would put into writing, but never did.
Ma claimed in her suit that she secured meetings for Bennett’s firm with the Chinese internet-sales giant Alibaba Group and the Embassy of Vietnam.
“The only agreement we ever had was a referral one for business that never materialized,” Bennett said.
Asked if Ma actually delivered any clients to the firm, he said: “Never, although I will say she tried.”
Ma’s allegation that Bennett is implicated in a federal investigation comes as a probe into Trump’s personal lawyer has burst into public view. Last month, FBI agents executed search warrants at former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s home and office. They also took a cell phone of Trump-allied attorney Victoria Toensing, although a spokesperson for her law firm said she was told she is not a target of the investigation.
The Giuliani probe is scrutinizing potential violations of a federal law that bars Americans from secretly lobbying for foreign governments — the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.
The Justice Department has beefed up its enforcement of FARA in recent years and added more than a dozen new staffers to the unit overseeing compliance with the law, lawyers who handle such matters say. Efforts to strengthen enforcement of laws on foreign lobbying came in the wake of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian government efforts to interfere in 2016 U.S. election.
Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort in 2018 pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the law. A host of other figures in Trump’s broader orbit have also gotten in legal trouble for illegal foreign government lobbying, as the Justice Department’s website details.
Lawyers for some foreign lobbyists have griped that some aspects of the FARA crackdown are unfair, because the department is scouring old filings and demanding a degree of detail that it had never insisted upon before it brought charges against Manafort in 2017.
Rob Kelner, a prominent Washington lawyer who handles FARA matters but is unconnected to Bennett or Avenue Strategies, said the statute’s “breathtaking scope and fundamental vagueness” leave lobbyists and others vulnerable to changing interpretations of the law by the Justice Department.
“FARA’s breadth potentially provides prosecutors with a target-rich environment in which to pursue cases against corporations, individuals, advocacy groups, and others, and we are already seeing signs of a cottage industry of groups that are adept at filing FARA complaints with DOJ for their own purposes,” Kelner said. “We have long described FARA to clients as a ‘gotcha’ statute, which can be invoked by political opponents and dusted off by prosecutors when other statutes are unavailing. DOJ wields great power under FARA, without ever having to walk into court.”