A prominent Maine political consultant and communications firm chief is working on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Crystal Canney, co-owner and CEO of The Knight Canney Group in Portland, is a former broadcaster who worked for WGME from 2000-2005 and then joined the administration of former Gov. John Baldacci, serving first as communications director and then as associate commissioner of the Department of Finance and Administration.
She and her business partner, Felicia Knight, a former broadcaster and former spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, merged their separate firms in 2014, five years after Canney left the Baldacci administration to set up Canney Communications. Canney is also a former independent candidate for the state senate from Portland.
Canney began work June 15 as a subcontractor for the Iowa public relations firm Larson Shannahan Slifka Group, doing business as LS2 Group, a development first reported by an online news site, ForeignLobby.com.
In response to questions this week, Canney said her work for LS2 Group is “independent” of her commitments with Knight Canney. The firm has been active in recent political campaigns, including the election of Portland Mayor Kate Snyder last year and Michael Bloomberg’s unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination this year.
During Angus King’s successful 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, and then in his Senate office, Canney served as King’s first communications director. King and Collins are considered key votes in numerous and continuing confrontations between Congress and President Donald Trump over Saudi Arabia.
Collins, and especially King, have been outspoken in their criticism of the Saudi regime and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence services determined was involved in the grisly murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi of The Washington Post on Oct. 2, 2018. Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, killed, and his body dismembered. Saudi Arabia first denied, then acknowledged that the killing had occurred at the Turkish consulate.
Trump said he believed the crown prince’s assurances that he was not responsible for the murder of Khashoggi, which led the Senate to pass a unanimous, non-binding resolution saying that Salman was responsible.
Congress later attempted to prevent Trump from providing military support for the Saudi campaign against the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, backed by Iran, that has produced widespread civilian deaths in a conflict that began in 2014.
The unusual clashes between Trump and half a dozen Republican senators, with Collins prominent among them, resulted in several of the rare vetoes Trump has issued. In April 2019, the Senate approved a resolution attempting to end U.S. support for the Saudi campaign against the Houthi insurgents. In July, after Trump had characterized new arms sales to Saudi Arabia as “emergencies” – allowing him to act without Congressional approval – the Senate attempted to block the moves.
“From the war in Yemen that has become a humanitarian disaster to the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has committed egregious and unacceptable violations of human rights,” Collins said.
King has been even more outspoken, denouncing the Saudi government in several speeches on the Senate floor. He also pressed his case in a meeting with Prince Salman and said of then-U.S.National Security Advisor John Bolton that he was engaging in “deliberate ignorance” about an audiotape of the killing, recorded by Turkish authorities.
While Trump remains in office Saudi Arabia has an unequivocal supporter, but the possibility of a change in administration has prompted its embassy to begin spending in unusual places. The “heartland” campaign run by the LS2 Group has so far included forays into Colorado and Indiana, as well as Maine. It has an estimated 35 employees and annual revenue of $2.8 million from lobbying.
One of its consultants, a former South Dakota state senator, now state Republican Party chairman, Dan Lederman, faced criticism from the Fall River County Committee saying he ought to resign because of his work “against American citizens on behalf of a foreign government,” according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. The Republican Party’s Central Committee took no action on the complaint.
The LS2 Group already has a Maine lobbyist on its payroll, Kathleen Summers-Grice, a Cumberland resident, whose firm, Eaton Rivers Strategies, is based in Manchester. She served in the administration of former President George W. Bush and has been active in Republican campaigns.
Summers-Grice worked on Sen. Fred Thompson’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign, as well as Maine Senate President Kevin Raye’s 2002 bid as the Republican nominee for the 2nd District Congressional seat, won that year by Democrat Mike Michaud. She was more successful in the 2010 Republican campaign to retake the state Senate, which briefly ended 14 years of Democratic control.
Canney has worked mostly for Democrats and a few independents. She was an independent candidate herself in 2018 for Portland’s state Senate District 27 seat now held by Democrat Ben Chipman; both were Clean Election candidates. Chipman won easily, with 75 percent of the vote.
Her biography at Knight Canney notes that she was “a trusted advisor to Senator King” while he was a member of both the Intelligence and Armed Services committees. This required, Canney said, her “immersion in myriad international affairs, including in the Middle East, where she represented Senator King on a fact-finding trip to refugee camps in Jordan.”
One unusual result of LS2 Group’s work on behalf of Saudi Arabia was a 22-minute question-and-answer session by Saudi Embassy spokesman Fahad Nazer in February with Ray Richardson, part of his radio talk show on Portland’s WLOB. During the appearance, Nazer said the Kingdom welcomed “constructive criticism” concerning its human rights record.
It wasn’t immediately clear how much the LS2 Group is paying Canney, based on her June 15 filing under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires disclosure from all American nationals working for a foreign government.
LS2 Group has a monthly stipend of $126,500 from the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and pays out a considerable amount in subcontracts. Summers-Grice, who registered as a foreign lobbyist on Nov. 25, 2019, reported that she is paid $10,000 a month for part-time work, and is also currently working for Dale Crafts’ campaign for the Republican nomination for the 2nd District Congressional seat now held by Democrat Jared Golden.
Canney’s registration is otherwise identical to Summer-Grice’s but does not list a salary amount.
Sen. King’s spokesman, Matthew Felling, did not respond to a request for comment. Canney referred further requests to the LS2 Group, which did not return phone calls.
In her biography, Canney concludes that she “is a strong and motivating force of good for all her clients.”
Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.
An earlier version of this story should not have described Crystal Canney as a “lobbyist” for Saudi Arabia. According to the Foreign Agents Registration statement she filed with the U.S. Department of Justice, the services Canney will provide include “strategic and government affairs advice, public relations and communications advice and services, outreach and engagement with the public and media groups, and oversight of other consultants.” The registration statement goes on to say these activities will include “informing the public, government officials and the media about the importance of fostering and promoting strong relations between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”