A former U.S. ambassador will plead guilty to charges that he lied to federal investigators about foreign lobbying work on behalf of Qatar. Richard Olson had reportedly begun discussions on working for foreign governments while employed by the State Department. 

Federal prosecutors in the Central District of California charged Olson, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, with making false statements in federal ethics documents and using his standing to advance the interests of the Qatari government. Court filings on April 6 showed Olson wished to enter a guilty plea

What the indictment shows is how Olson leveraged his government service as a way to secure work from foreign clients after his retirement. According to the evidence in the case, Olson received a flight to London in early 2015 from a Pakistani-American lobbyist to meet a businessperson from Bahrain. 

During that meeting, Olson was offered a $300,000 annual contract at their company, but it was unclear whether a deal was secured. However, prosecutors say the lobbyist paid for a first-class flight to London, a stay at a luxurious hotel and dinner on Olson’s behalf that altogether cost about $19,000.

Olson at the time was still serving as the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan after being nominated for the role by former President Barack Obama. He later served as Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan before retiring in November 2016. 

But shortly after leaving government service, Olson signed on to join the lobbyist’s firm in a move that violates federal restrictions on foreign lobbying until a year after retiring. Even once this "cooling off" period is over, a lobbyist for a foreign entity has to register as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Olson soon began working with Qatari clients in a coordinated lobbying push at a time when the small kingdom was under enormous pressure. In June 2017, Qatar’s neighbors Saudi Arabia and the UAE initiated a blockade over Doha’s refusal to respond to a set of demands related to Iran and its support for Islamist political parties. 

By this time, Olson was tasked with contacting unnamed members of Congress and the current U.S. ambassador to Qatar to encourage them to side with it against its neighbors. The Trump administration initially sided against Qatar, but it soon shifted to trying to find ways to resolve the blockade which ended in January 2021.

Qatar has been among the most prolific spenders on foreign lobbying in Washington in recent years. According to OpenSecrets, the Qatari government spent roughly $12.9 million in 2017 at the time it was employing Olson, but this figure has slipped to about $9.6 million in 2021. 

However, its spending on lobbying has been dwarfed by its neighbors like the UAE which spent an estimated $21.9 million in foreign lobbying last year.