WASHINGTON DC--APCO Worldwide has dismissed reports linking it to a "covert" Malaysian campaign to discredit the country's pro-democracy movement.
The public affairs firm was last week cited as one of the entities that funded conservative pundit Joshua Trevino's payments to conservative opinion writers across a range of outlets, including the Huffington Post, National Review and San Francisco Examiner.
According to Trevino's federal filing, made some five years after the campaign begun, he was working on behalf of the "Government of Malaysia, its ruling party, or interests closely aligned with either, acting through one or more of APCO Worldwide and the David All Group (May 2008 through September 2008), and FBC Media (February 2009 through April 2011)".
APCO's work for the Malaysian Government between 2009 and 2011 has hit the headlines before, not least for the lucrative nature of the contract and the level of political opposition it triggered within the country.
However, the agency told the Holmes Report that its work with Trevino was part of a separate contract that predated its involvement with the Malaysian government.
APCO deputy MD B. Jay Cooper said that, in 2008, the firm was contracted by FBC Media, a UK company that entered administration last year following a damaging news-fixing scandal. Cooper noted that APCO then sub-contracted the David All Group, which paid Trevino and another blogger to set up a website called Malaysia Matters.
"That website had a disclosure on it as to who was paying for it and what it was about," said Cooper. "FBC told us it was paid for by a group of Malaysian investors, funding a programme to get the word out on Malaysia."
It has since emerged that FBC was paid £17m by the Malaysian government to conduct a global strategic communications campaign, although this assignment only began in 2009.
Cooper notes that APCO ended its work for FBC in 2008. The firm began working for the Malaysian government in 2009, he added, but had no further involvement with Trevino or FBC. Trevino's filing states that his payments to opinion writers were made in 2009 and 2010.
When contacted by the Holmes Report, Trevino questioned whether the Malaysia Matters website disclosed its ownership, although this story in Politico suggests that it did.
Otherwise, said Trevino, he has "no information" to dispute APCO's version of events. The firm's filing under the Lobbying Disclosure Act confirms that it worked for FBC between March and October 2008, on an assignment described as “raising awareness of the importance of policies in Malaysia that are pro-business and pro-investment as well as the significance of reform and anti-terrorism efforts in that country."
"I come from a different era where you do not pay journalists to do things," added Cooper. "Are we in habit of paying bloggers? To my knowledge, we are not."