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Six Degrees of Луизиана

As Robert Mueller’s investigation continues, connections to Louisiana become increasingly difficult to ignore.

Earlier this week, in “The Red Pelican,” The Bayou Brief reported on the multiple connections that Louisiana has with the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

In the past two days, thanks to the intrepid reporting of David Hammer of WWL in New Orleans, Lily Dobrovolskaya of Transparency International in Russia, and Seth Hettena, the author of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, more connections have emerged, and they are arguably much more troubling than what we had previously known.

Hettena, in an opinion column for The New York Times, reveals that the Trump administration quietly “eased its pressure on Rusal, Russia’s largest aluminum company, less than four months after sanctions on it and its notorious leader were imposed.”

That “notorious leader” is an oligarch and trusted ally of Vladimir Putin named Oleg Deripaska. Hettena provides some background on Deripaska:

As the Treasury Department acknowledges, he has been investigated for money laundering and accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official and taking part in extortion and racketeering. There are also allegations, made public by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, that Mr. Deripaska bribed a government official, ordered the murder of a businessman and had links to a Russian organized crime group. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Paul Manafort, then Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, tried to offer Mr. Deripaska private briefings about the campaign.

So what does this have to do with Louisiana?

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Former U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R- Louisiana)

Reuters

Three months ago, Rusal’s holding company hired a D.C.-based lobbying firm named Mercury Public Affairs for $108,500 a month to help it negotiate with the U.S. Department of Treasury.

That firm is led by none other than the former U.S. Senator from Louisiana, David Bruce Vitter.

“Vitter is far from the only former Louisiana politician (to) go through the revolving door, and he’s not (the) first to represent questionable characters,” columnist Stephanie Grace notes in The Advocate. “Former U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, for example, once represented the Libyan government under Muammar el-Qaddafi.” (Vitter was first elected to Congress after Livingston stepped down in disgrace).

It appears that Vitter’s lobbying efforts on behalf of the Russian company and Deripaska have been largely successful so far: On Tuesday, the federal government granted Deripaska more time to divest his ownership interests from 70% to below 50%, a requirement of U.S. sanctions first enacted in April.

Vitter is not the only Louisiana lobbyist who is currently representing a Russian oligarch.

As David Hammer first reported yesterday for WWL, the New Orleans-area CBS affiliate, Vitter’s former, long-time chief of staff and campaign manager, Kyle Ruckert, is a registered lobbyist for the deceptively-named company American Ethane.

According to disclosure forms filed in late July, American Ethane is controlled by three Russian oligarchs with direct ties to Vladimir Putin, including Putin’s former chief of staff. Its single-largest shareholder is Konstantin Nikolaev, a billionaire who funded the guns rights organization founded by Maria Butina, the woman currently accused by the U.S. of acting as a covert agent of the Russian government.

Ruckert first registered as a lobbyist for American Ethane in October of 2017, though his earlier filings did not reveal the fact that the company was primarily owned by foreign investors, a violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.

Ruckert is earning approximately $7,000 a month from the company.

Although American Ethane was first incorporated in Dallas, Texas in 2014, its founder and CEO is a prominent lawyer in New Orleans, John Houghtaling. (The company is now headquartered in Houston, in a building it shares, ironically, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection).

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John Houghtaling at a recent event in China.

Source: American Ethane

Russian billionaires, according to Hammer’s report, provided the vast majority of the seed money for the company, which initially had grand plans of building a controversial petrochemical plant in St. James Parish.

The deal ultimately fell through.

Although Houghtaling may not be a particularly familiar name in Louisiana, almost everyone likely knows about his residence.

Houghtaling owns one of the most iconic homes in Louisiana, a 22,000 square foot “Richardsonian Romanesque Revival mansion” on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, formerly known as the Villere Mansion.

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"It was built by the Cotton King of New Orleans," its owner, attorney and American Ethane CEO John Houghtaling, told the Times-Picayune in 2011.

Source: Google Maps

According to a comprehensive search of federal campaign records, Houghtaling has, in past years, been a major contributor to Democratic campaigns. He made a maximum donation to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President in 2016 and had even donated to her first Senate campaign in New York in 2000.

However, during the past twelve months, Houghtaling has become a prominent booster of Louisiana Republicans.

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Houghtaling's campaign contributions during the past year.

Source: FEC

In addition to donations to U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy and John Neely Kennedy and to Rep. Steve Scalise, all Republicans from Louisiana, Houghtaling also contributed to the campaign and the leadership fund of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who currently serves as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

Notably, he also donated to Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey; Menendez is currently the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

During the spring and early summer of 2017, the time he was making many of these donations, Houghtaling was negotiating a $26 billion deal with the Nanshan Group, a Chinese energy company.

“As those lobbyists worked for American Ethane in the halls of power, Louisiana’s two U.S. senators, Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, were contacting the U.S. Commerce Department to draw attention to a massive 20-year, $26 billion ethane export deal the company had negotiated with Chinese energy firm Nanshan Group,” Hammer reported.

In a press release issued by American Ethane, the deal is described as a “binding agreement to deliver ethane gas from a terminal on the Texas Gulf Coast to a new ethylene plant in China….”

The deal was finalized in June of 2017, and it was formerly celebrated by President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping at a signing ceremony during a trade summit in Beijing last November.

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John Houghtaling at a signing ceremony in Beijing on November 9, 2017.

Source: American Ethane

American Ethane boasted that the deal was “one of the largest at the November 2017 trade summit.” No one acknowledged that this so-called “American” company was actually owned by three Russian oligarchs.

Ruckert, who had signed on as a lobbyist only a month before the summit, did not disclose the company’s foreign ownership interests until July 20th of this year.

There are two other connections that deserve attention.

Kyle Ruckert isn’t the only former Chief of Staff in his family. Ruckert’s wife Lynnel also has extensive experience on Capitol Hill.

“(Lynnel Ruckert) previously spent 15 years in Washington – working as an aide on the U.S House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, a scheduler to U.S. Representative David Vitter, a legislative aide to U.S. Representative Bobby Jindal, and Chief of Staff for U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise,” her biography states (emphasis added).

Today, while her husband lobbies on behalf of a Russian-owned ethane company, Lynnel is working for a client right here in Louisiana, state Attorney General Jeff Landry.

She is currently Landry’s director of the Administrative Services Division at the Louisiana Department of Justice.

Four months ago, she and her husband had the chance to tour the “grandest” and “most imposing” home in New Orleans. Her boss was holding a fundraiser, and the host was the home’s owner, John Houghtaling II.

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An invitation to a recent fundraiser for Jeff Landry, hosted by John Houghtaling II.

Update: A reader points out that American Ethane Company has made a string of other donations to Louisiana Republican officials, including Congressmen Garret Graves and Mike Johnson.

In April, the company also donated $5,000 to Pelican PAC and, two weeks later, $15,000 to Conservative Louisiana, both of which are political action committees affiliated with Sen. John Kennedy.

Conservative Louisiana is led by the lobbyist for the Russian-owned company, American Ethane, a political operative described as the “principal architect for former U.S. Sen. David Vitter,” Kyle Ruckert.

It is against federal law for a campaign to accept contributions from a foreign-owned corporation, a foreign national, or any LLC owned or controlled by foreign nationals.

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