This story is being published jointly by VICE News and the Center for Public Integrity.
By almost any objective measure, the fledgling nation of South Sudan is a disaster. Reeling from a violent power struggle that's left an estimated 50,000 people dead just in the past three years and with a gross domestic product of just $2,000 per capita, it's one of the world's poorest, most unsafe nations.
Last week, as it celebrated the fifth anniversary of its independence from Sudan, the capital Juba was rocked by new violence between government forces and militias, which reportedly killed almost 300 people and displaced thousands before a ceasefire on Monday.
While opposition forces have been responsible for some of the violence historically, South Sudanese government troops "bore the greatest responsibility" for human rights violations, according to a UN report. Those government forces have raped and murdered civilians, recruited child soldiers, and looted civilian property.
More than 5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the World Food Programme, and many of them face "unprecedented levels of food insecurity". One in five South Sudanese have fled their homes, according to international development organization Mercy Corps.
But while the government of president Salva Kiir Mayardit claims it doesn't have enough money to fix these problems, it was able to spend $2.1 million on lobbying and public relations firms in Washington from 2014 through the end of 2015. The money went to efforts to buff up its image, keep US aid flowing, and stave off harsher sanctions in response to its atrocities.
That cash has gone to people including former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts and R&R Partners, the agency famous for the "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" campaign. A chunk of South Sudan's money went to lobbying giant Podesta Group, led by high-profile Democratic Party fundraiser Tony Podesta — brother of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chairman, John, who also led President Obama's transition team and was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff. Among the Podesta operatives who worked on the South Sudan account were former high-level officials of Bill Clinton's Defense Department and Hillary Clinton's State Department.
None of this is illegal, to be sure, although it's not clear whether everyone who shilled for South Sudan complied with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires foreign governments and other foreign actors to detail how they're attempting to influence US public opinion, policy and laws.
Beyond that, though, a variety of critics contend that South Sudan's relationships with US power brokers are the latest, distasteful instance of a cash-for-influence in Washington.
As the Center for Public Integrity has previously reported, countries with the worst human rights records have increasingly sought help from Washington lobbyists and PR professionals. In fact, South Sudan was a relatively small player among a boatload of troubled nations that together have paid more than $168 million for lobbying and PR contracts from 2010 to 2015.
But for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, or even the tortured or the families of the dead, scoring meetings with lawmakers or airing grievances in the nation's capital is a far more daunting assignment.
A troubled history
South Sudan may be the world's youngest nation, but it already has a troubled history.
In 1983, when Sudan was still one nation, the Sudan People's Liberation Army began fighting the Khartoum-based Sudanese government over control of resources and the marginalization of some ethnic groups.
After the war ended in 2005, the south gained autonomy. After Kiir Mayardit, who had been the Sudan People's Liberation Movement leader, was elected president, South Sudan won full independence in 2011. But in December 2013, Kiir accused Vice President Riek Machar, a former commander in the Sudan People's Liberation Army — the military branch of the movement that had won independence —of attempting a coup and fired him along with the entire cabinet. That sparked an armed conflict between the two rivals' loyalists.
Divisions split around ethnicities, pitting Nuer groups, like those loyal to Machar, against Dinkas, like Kiir and his forces. A 2015 peace agreement, in which both sides agreed to a unified government and end to warfare, was repeatedly broken. In April, Machar returned to Juba — a provision of the peace deal that had been delayed many times — but has been living in a makeshift camp with armed soldiers and a supply of weapons. Kiir and Machar met for talks this month, but the conflict continues.
The United States, which supported the independence of South Sudan and has spent $1.6 billion in humanitarian aid for the country since the war began in 2013, has reacted to the violence with relatively mild sanctions.
In 2014, the Treasury Department authorized targeted sanctions to freeze the assets and halt the travel of two low-level military commanders from each side of the conflict. Last year, the UN Security Council did the same with six others; the US added two of them to its own sanctions list.
Advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch and some in Congress say that far more forceful US action including tougher sanctions and an arms embargo is required, especially against Kiir and the sitting government.
Such sanctions, if strictly enforced, could create leverage over warring parties and stop military commanders who are "perpetuating the conflict," said Ian Schwab, director of advocacy and impact strategy for the Enough Project, a nonprofit group focusing on mass atrocities, which called the South Sudanese government "a violent kleptocracy."
"I don't think South Sudan has a better friend than the United States"
Republican Congressman Thomas Rooney sponsored legislation on South Sudan last July to bring attention to the conflict and support an arms embargo and expanded sanctions, something Democratic members of Congress also support.
At an appropriations hearing in February, Rooney asked Secretary of State John Kerry about US plans with the international community to impose such an arms embargo and tougher sanctions on "individuals who've committed violations of international humanitarian and human rights law" in South Sudan.
"I don't think South Sudan has a better friend than the United States," Kerry responded, adding that if the nation's leaders continue to fail on delivering its commitments in the peace agreement, "the international community is absolutely prepared" for individual sanctions.
But the administration has not added anyone to the list of sanctions since July 2015, nor has it pursued an arms embargo. A State Department spokesman, in an e-mailed response to questions, said the administration remains "committed to seeing the peace agreement implemented" fully and has not hesitated to criticize the actors that hinder it.
The spokesman added that the administration's policy has not been influenced by lobbyists.
But Ed Royce, a Republican Congressman, noted the United States' hesitation in adopting measures to help stop the war, calling the idea of an arms embargo "an empty threat."
Watch VICE News' Riek Machar Discusses His Return to South Sudan's Capital:
It's impossible to directly attribute this lack of further action against the South Sudan government to the lobbying and PR campaign. But those advocating a more vigorous stance contend that the lobbying and PR created a misleading narrative that contributes to the current paralysis.
Human rights advocates note their messages are often drowned out by those of well-funded lobbyists.
"We don't have enough resources and capacity to deflect against that sort of firepower, so we are effectively muzzled," said Maran Turner, the head of human rights organization Freedom Now. "That means that the messages that are coming from [PR firms] are what are getting to the various places in the US government."
"They're spreading completely false information and undermining the efforts of a united international community that's seeking to bring peace to a country that's had more years of conflict than of peace since it was founded," is how an expert on South Sudan's humanitarian situation, who asked not to be named for security reasons, summed up the situation.
Close to home
For Mayom Bol Achuk, it's all more personal.
A South Sudanese refugee who resettled in the US, where he attended college and graduate school, Achuk went back to South Sudan in the summer of 2012 to work for a US-funded agricultural program, and to confront the memories of a wartime past that haunted him. "I feel like the only way to get rid of these bad memories," he said, "is to go back home and get reconnected with my people and the land."
But just a year and a half later, the bad old memories were replaced by bad new ones, as he found himself again in the middle of a war. He photographed with his phone the evidence of a mass atrocity — the bodies of 32 people killed for being suspected rebels — and, after that, knew it was time to flee again. After a few panicked days and nights, that same phone helped get him on a UN evacuation flight out of South Sudan.
Achuk still uses that iPhone 3, and says his friends joke about how outdated it is. But he won't give it up, because it holds photographic proof of the violent atrocities he witnessed in Sudan and helped save his life.
These days, from suburban Silver Spring, Maryland, Achuk uses the phone to fight a different battle. Together with other, former "Lost Boys" from South Sudan, he's trying to educate more people in power about the conflict in his home country.
But it's been frustrating, he says. He's been fighting a narrative portraying South Sudan, in the words of a press release, as "committed to upholding the democratic ideals of an elected government." The government is simply "defending itself and its people against the brutal actions of [the opposition]," or so the press release said. Paid lobbyists and professional message peddlers repeated the story in social media and meetings with lawmakers and administration officials, according to filings.
Achuk sees them another way.
"You are a beneficiary of a war situation," he said. "This is blood money."
That South Sudan government press release, circulated last July, came from R&R Partners, the Las Vegas firm, which has offices in nine cities, including Washington.
The firm is led by Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime friend of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. His profile on the R&R website begins with a quote from The New York Times: "Every dream needs a merchant, every myth a mythmaker. In Las Vegas, that job falls to Billy Vassiliadis."
Among its other clients, there are big names including Boeing and the government of Indonesia. Vassiliadis said he was not personally involved in the South Sudan contract; the firm's website mentions that R&R has worked in West Central Africa, but doesn't mention South Sudan by name.
Still, R&R agreed to "develop a plan to heighten the visibility and positive image of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan in the United States," a Center for Public Integrity review of the firm's contract with South Sudan indicates.
The firm's consultants contacted dozens of members of Congress, congressional staff, State Department officials, think tanks and nonprofits to discuss sanctions and the peace process, disclosures show.
"Sanctions only serve to weaken peace efforts and demoralize ambitions of the elected government," reads a press release that R&R Partners prepared for South Sudan.
The poverty-stricken nation paid R&R Partners $900,000, more than any other public relations firm South Sudan employed. The contract, which began in January 2015, ended at the close of 2015, though documents show that South Sudan still owes R&R another $900,000 payment.
R&R also set up a now-defunct social media campaign around the slogan "Stand up South Sudan," on Twitter, describing the account as "a voice for the people and the Republic of South Sudan ... focused on achieving peace and prosperity."
Among those working on the South Sudan contract was Bill Owens, the former Republican governor of Colorado, who wrote last March in an op-ed in The Hill that "it is in our national interest to be engaged and to support the elected government of the world's youngest nation."
The commentary did not say that Owens was paid $50,000 for his work on South Sudan through R&R. The Foreign Agents Registration Act dictates that a "conspicuous statement" must be present on disseminated materials, disclosing the relationship between the firm and client.
"I have no direct knowledge ... as to what kind of atrocities, if you will, were being perpetrated. I really can't speak to that"
Monica McCafferty of R&R Partners, who worked on the contract as well, said in an email that "the failure to issue the disclosure on the op-ed itself was an inadvertent human error and mistake, made in haste."
Owens did not respond to requests for comment.
"Our goal was to help end the civil war and direct more US foreign aid to the nation," McCafferty said.
"We stand behind our work ... All work our firm chooses to take on is done so deliberately," she stated. "In this case, we knew that we were representing the elected, recognized side of government (as opposed to the rebel forces)."
R&R was not alone. Government affairs firm Watts Partners, which bills itself as "the largest African-American owned lobbying company in Washington," represented South Sudan from July 2015 to February 2016 as a subcontractor with London-based advisory firm Arise Consult. The firm provided "government-to-government advocacy and business development advisory services" for South Sudan for $120,000, documents show.
The Watts Partners website does not mention South Sudan either, 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 US-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 US 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 US 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, it has experience working with African nations, for example conducting "an aggressive advocacy effort" for the government of Liberia.
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, without responding 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 US, the contract shows. The firm contacted dozens of members of Congress, State Department officials, nonprofits and newspapers, meeting with several in person to discuss US-South Sudan relations.
Firm leader Tony Podesta, one of the Democratic party's more active fundraisers over the years, has helped Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign raise nearly a quarter-million dollars through March 31, federal records show.
Tony Podesta (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Shortly after South Sudan gained independence, then-secretary of state Clinton welcomed the new government, saying, "We will work with you, we will stand with you, we will support you." Her tenure as secretary ended in early 2013, 10 months before factional fighting broke out. Among those who worked on the South Sudan account at Podesta Group was David Adams, who was assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under Clinton.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
When the Center for Public Integrity asked Tony Podesta about the contract by email, a communications strategist at the firm responded that "it is our company policy not to discuss the work we do for clients other than what is publicly available."
Podesta Group's foreign lobbying has included other controversial clients, including Azerbaijan, Egypt, and the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court, an arm of the Saudi government.
In Podesta Group's words, South Sudan's government is "committed to lasting peace, justice and accountability," and President Kiir "cares deeply about his people and their wellbeing," according to a press release issued on behalf of the South Sudanese Embassy.
This glowing review, along with others, was sent to dozens of staff members both on Capitol Hill and in the State Department, disclosures show.
A UN report on human rights, accountability and reconciliation in South Sudan, released in March, offered a different assessment.
"Despite repeated commitments to end the violence, protect civilians and punish perpetrators, to date, there is no evidence or available public information of any genuine efforts by the government to investigate, prosecute and punish violations and abuses, some of them amounting to international crimes," the report states.
For its part, Podesta discouraged sanctions in press materials as something that "will undoubtedly lead to [the] collapse of [a] fragile peace agreement, resulting in potential loss of lives and suffering for the people of South Sudan."
But the humanitarian expert said South Sudan's lobbying efforts included statements that were "just blatantly, patently false" in portraying the nation.
"This is the first time ever, since I've done this job," said the expert, "that I've had to lobby against a professional lobbying firm which is trying to undermine peace, and human rights and humanitarian efforts."
Lobbying for bad actors
But South Sudan's lobbying is far from an isolated phenomenon. Egypt turned to Glover Park Group for help after cuts to US military aid in late 2013 that came about because of the Obama administration's disappointment in the slow progress toward democratization and fair elections. Last year, with the help of Podesta Group, Azerbaijan successfully turned its image around, from human rights abuser to friend of the United States.
Countries with the worst human rights records have increasingly sought Washington lobbyists and PR professionals since 2010, the Center for Public Integrity reported in December.
"I think the really bad guys have to pay a premium"
Russia and Saudi Arabia far outspent most countries on representation, with more than $40 million each worth of contracts from 2010 to 2015. Firms like Ketchum, Qorvis/MSLGroup, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and Squire Patton Boggs topped the list of those taking work from the governments with the worst human rights records. Other countries that spent millions to try to influence public opinion and policy included Egypt, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq and Azerbaijan.
Toby Moffett, a former congressman and current lobbyist for Mayer Brown, has years of experience representing foreign nations on Capitol Hill. For some of them, navigating Washington can be difficult, he said.
"The more of a developing country that you are, the more difficult it is to cut through the noise," he said.
At his firm, Moffett asserted, clients must pass a tough screening process. However, "there's firms that'll do virtually anything," he said.
And taking on the worst offenders might be worth it for some. "I think the really bad guys have to pay a premium," Moffett said.
Some contend that South Sudan's money could have been better invested elsewhere than on reputation management in the US.
For one, the money could have helped avoid the dire food crisis that the South Sudanese currently face.
"There is no doubt that the million-plus dollars spent by the government of South Sudan on lobbyists could have been better used to relieve the suffering of millions of people in South Sudan," said Daniel Sullivan, formerly director of policy and government relations for nonprofit United to End Genocide. "Instead of focusing on public relations, South Sudan's leaders should have focused on preventing the alarming food insecurity, effectively famine, decimating their people today."
The South Sudanese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Others say the lobbying efforts were fruitless, while still others say it's hard to tell, or simply beside the point.
Democratic Congressman Michael Capuano, who co-sponsored legislation on South Sudan and visited the nation last year, said his priority is the effective delivery of humanitarian aid. He expressed uncertainty that lobbying efforts could help the nation.
The situation is too violent for the South Sudanese government to hide its actions with lobbying, he said.
"No lobbyist, no matter how good they are," is able to mask the real state of things, he said: "They can't change the facts on the ground."
Capuano may have a point.
At a December hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, experts from government aid agency USAID and the State Department, after some hesitation, confirmed that South Sudanese government forces, as well as the opposition, had intentionally targeted aid workers.
"You ought to be embarrassed," Republican Senator Bob Corker told representatives there from the South Sudanese Embassy.
Corker asked how a nation could accept more than $1 billion in aid from the United States while targeting aid workers. He then held up a press release, saying, "I would be embarrassed to send out the kind of press release that you sent out prior to this hearing."
That release, sent to staff members on Capitol Hill and in the State Department just before the hearing,, praised President Kiir as a "hero" and blamed humanitarian challenges on a "lack of funds." It also asked the US to "redouble its efforts" to support South Sudan.
A Capitol Hill staffer that shared the press release with the Center for Public Integrity said there was no indication that a PR or lobbying firm was involved in the writing or distribution of the document.
But filings that the Center for Public Integrity requested from the Department of Justice reveal its creators in an email: "The Podesta Group provides representation to the government of the Republic of South Sudan."
Follow Erin Quinn on Twitter: @Erin_rq
Patrick Madden of WAMU-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate and reporting partner for the Center for Public Integrity, contributed to this story.