Secretary of the Navy nominee may have had undisclosed contract with Cambridge Analytica, documents suggest

By Graham Kates

/ CBS News

Documents apparently generated by Cambridge Analytica suggest that the political consulting firm had a contractual relationship with Kenneth Braithwaite in the year before he was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Norway in 2017.

Braithwaite, who President Trump has said will be his nominee for Secretary of the Navy, made no mention of an agreement in his required government disclosure form, and says he never entered one.

Braithwaite was required to disclose every paid and unpaid position he held outside government within the two prior calendar years before the Senate confirmed him to be ambassador. A willful failure to include a job or consulting position on the Office of Government Ethics Form 278e can be a violation of federal law. Braithwaite denies any relationship with Cambridge Analytica that would require this disclosure.

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Two of the records reviewed by CBS News indicate Braithwaite agreed to a one-year contract with the company beginning on November 1, 2016, one week before Donald Trump was elected president. His apparent role, referred to as both "associate officer" and "referral partner" in the records, has not previously been reported.

One record that listed Braithwaite was among dozens of files recently released on Twitter by Brittany Kaiser, a whistleblower who is the former business development director for Cambridge Analytica. The other record was separately provided by Kaiser to CBS News.

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A document provided to CBS News by former Cambridge Analytica business development director Brittany Kaiser suggests Kenneth Braithwaite had a business agreement with the company. CBS News

Kaiser described those holding these titles as salesmen, empowered by the company to pitch its consulting services in exchange for a commission — 5% in Braithwaite's case, according to one of the documents. Another person listed as having received a similar contract to Braithwaite confirmed Kaiser's description of the role.

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Kenneth Braithwaite U.S. Embassy Oslo, Norway

The documents indicate that Braithwaite was under contract from November 1, 2016 through October 31, 2017. Mr. Trump nominated Braithwaite to be Ambassador to Norway on October 19, 2017.

Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL Group, shut down in 2018 following revelations about its use of misappropriated data from tens of millions of Facebook users to target voters with disinformation in support of the U.K.'s "Brexit" referendum and Mr. Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. The records do not suggest Braithwaite was involved in those operations.

Braithwaite said he did not work for Cambridge Analytica. In a statement to CBS News, Braithwaite acknowledged discussions with Cambridge Analytica, but said they were short-lived and that he never signed a contract or received payment from the company. He said the the State Department Legal Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure "concurs" that he did not have to disclose any connection to Cambridge Analytica.

"In the summer and fall of 2016, I had discussions about consulting for SCL/Cambridge Analytica(CA), but by December 2016 it was clear that it would not work out for either party," he said. "I had been willing to provide advice on an informal basis while those conversations were underway, and I entered into an NDA to explore possibly formalizing a business relationship. However, I was never an employee of CA, never referred any potential customers to them and never received any compensation from the company. It eventually became clear to me that this was not an opportunity I wanted to pursue as I was unable to come to a final agreement with CA about a possible role or appropriate compensation. Therefore I decided to focus on other professional responsibilities and opportunities—including a possible post in the Administration. On December 20, 2016 I terminated all contact with CA."

Even if he did not receive compensation from Cambridge, Braithwaite would have still been required to disclose any partnership or employment contract signed with the company on his financial disclosure form, according to Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"The financial disclosure says 'I certify that the statements I've made in this report are true, complete and correct to the best of my knowledge,'" she said.

"And if he failed to disclose required information that raises questions about false statements. Whether this was done knowingly and willfully, it's hard to know," said Canter, who served as White House Associate Counsel to Presidents Obama and Clinton.

"There's a practical reason why disclosure is necessary. We want to make sure that we identify any potential conflicts of interest," she added.

Kaiser told CBS News the documents were among tens of thousands she provided to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and investigators working for Britain's Parliament. She began publicly releasing batches of documents on Twitter on January 5, in part to bolster claims she made in her memoir, "Targeted," in which she describes how data about individuals flows to businesses and political campaigns around the world.
"I think in order to go one step further from my book, what I needed to do is actually take all of the documents that I referenced and show them to people in full, so that citizen journalists and investigators from around the world can take that next step," Kaiser said.
One document provided by Kaiser noted the mutual non-disclosure agreement, which Braithwaite acknowledged in his statement to CBS News. Kaiser said the agreement meant both parties were forbidden from revealing details about their relationship.

"He had to ask for that. They didn't just give mutual NDAs unless you asked for one. Otherwise they signed a one-sided NDA so that they had the power over you," Kaiser said.

President Trump announced in a tweet on November 24 that he had picked Braithwaite to lead the Navy. He would replace Richard Spencer, who was fired that same day for his handling of an internal review of a Navy SEAL who had been accused of war crimes.

Braithwaite's nomination for Secretary of the Navy has not yet been formally sent to the Senate, but at least one senator is already planning to revisit his 2017 confirmation for ambassador.

A spokesperson for Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement to CBS News that the New Jersey Democrat "will be reviewing this matter closely and seeking additional information," referring to the potential contract with Cambridge Analytica.

"We take the vetting of all nominees very seriously. If true, these reports raise serious questions about how forthcoming Ambassador Braithwaite was during his confirmation process. Failing to disclose a contract with Cambridge Analytica would be totally unacceptable and align Mr. Braithwaite with a growing number of Trump administration officials who have been either flagrantly negligent or intentionally dishonest in their dealings with the U.S. Senate," said Juan Pachon, the senator's spokesperson.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Braithwaite served in the Navy and Navy Reserve from 1984 through 2011, rising to the rank of rear admiral. Before joining the Trump administration he was vice president of Vizient, a health care services company, where he continued to work while the Cambridge Analytica documents suggest he was under contract with the company.

One potential conflict, according to Canter, was a June 20 event in which Braithwaite gave The U.S. Ambassador's Award to Thomas Wilhelmsen, the CEO of Wilh. Wilhelmsen Holding ASA, Norway's largest shipping company. Wilhelmsen's cousin — also an heir to the family fortune — is Olympia Paus, whose husband Alexander Nix was CEO of Cambridge Analytica.

A press release from the U.S. Embassy in Oslo said the award "is presented annually to the individual or organization who does the most in the preceding calendar year to advance the bilateral relationship between Norway and the United States." A separate statement released by one of the Wilhelmsen companies claimed the award had not been given out in five years.

Canter said government officials are expected to recuse themselves from matters in which their involvement could have the appearance of favoritism.

"As a technical matter, his recusal (would have) applied to Cambridge Analytica," Canter said.

"It looks like bestowing a favor on the family of his former boss. It makes his failure to disclose more significant," she added.

In his statement to CBS News, Braithwaite said he was not aware of that relationship when the award was given.

First published on January 20, 2020 / 11:02 AM

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Graham Kates

Graham Kates is an investigative reporter covering criminal justice, privacy issues and information security for CBSNews.com.