Tirana, 27 March 2019 – (Special Reporting by Mother Jones) – Albanian prosecutors on Monday questioned the head of the country’s main conservative party regarding more than $600,000 in payments that the party reportedly made in 2017 to a Republican lobbyist in Washington, DC.
The step comes more than a year after Mother Jones reported that a Scotland-based shell company connected to mysterious Russian nationals had bankrolled this lobbying effort.
Working for this party, the Democratic Party of Albania (DPA), Nick Muzin, a lobbyist who formerly worked for former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and advised the Trump campaign, arranged for a photo of Lulzim Basha, the party’s leader, with President Donald Trump, and had set up meetings for Basha with members of Congress, all to boost Basha’s party as it waged a bitter election fight in Albania against the ruling Socialist Party.
Albanian prosecutors also say they have received letters from authorities in the United States and Scotland seeking information on fees paid by the DPA and the shell company, Biniatta Trade, to a lobbying firm run by Muzin. Albanian publications, citing sources in the Albanian prosecutors’ office, reported that the letters came from the US Department of Justice.
The prosecutors say they suspect that Basha’s party violated the country’s laws by failing to disclose $650,000 in campaign expenditures that it paid to Muzin in 2017. The party had hired Muzin to introduce Basha, who adopted Trumplike rhetoric (such as vowing to “make Albania great again”), to American conservatives ahead of Albania’s parliamentary election in June 2017. According to prosecutors, they questioned Basha and three other DPA officials on Monday.
“The investigation led to legitimate suspicion based on proof that there is a substantial difference between the official statements of expenditures from the Democratic Party and the real expenses that this incurred,” the prosecutors’ office said in a statement issued Monday.
Prosecutors added that the DPA had declared making only $25,000 in lobbying payments, without revealing another $650,000 in expenditures. In filings with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act office, Muzin reported receiving that larger sum as his total compensation for his work for the DPA.
The letters from the US and Scotland show the DPA “has not made any declaration of these payments, in violation of the law,” Albanian prosecutors said.
Basha has denied violating Albanian laws. In a letter last week to prosecutors, he alleged that their investigation has been politically motivated, hinting at possible retaliation for the DPA’s active role in organizing massive opposition protests that have roiled Albania’s capital over the last two months.
Since late last year, Basha and his party have led multiple anti-government protests aimed at getting the current prime minister and leader of the ruling Socialist Party, Edi Rama, to resign.
In February, thousands protested outside Rama’s office over allegations of corruption in the awarding of contracts for a new highway in the capital of Tirana. Some protesters stormed the building with iron bars and Molotov cocktails, breaking down the front door.
Police responded with tear gas. Basha blamed the government for the unrest and ended the rally by calling for another protest days later. At another large rally outside parliament this month, Basha led a group of demonstrators who attempted to break through police lines while throwing smoke bombs.
Basha’s letter to prosecutors alleges that they sat on evidence for half a year before bringing him in for questioning on Monday. This timing, Basha wrote, “makes us think that your action has been done not for investigative purposes, but for political propaganda services.”
In March 2018, Mother Jones reported that Biniatta, which paid Muzin at least $150,000 to help the DPA, was created by two shell companies based in Belize that were in turn controlled by two other firms overseen by Russian nationals. The ties did not reveal Russian government involvement, but Biniatta’s financial support for the DPA came as Basha hewed toward a nationalist anti–European Union line that Russia has attempted to advance in the Balkans. Political parties in Albania tend to be friendly toward the United States. The 1999 US-led NATO bombing that aimed to counter Serbian aggression in Kosovo (which was made up of a majority of ethnic Albanians) remains extremely popular in Albania.
Mother Jones‘ report about the funding of Muzin’s Washington lobbying activities for the DPA—and the Russian connection—received wide attentionin Albania and drew attacks from the DPA, which falsely alleged that the ruling Socialist Party paid Mother Jones to produce the report.
Muzin and a Justice Department spokesman declined requests for comment. The Albanian prosecutors’ office did not respond to inquiries.
Source: Mother Jones