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Defeated Tunisian presidential candidate paid ex-Israeli intelligence official $250,000

Lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe reported being paid $250,000 by Nabil Karoui's wife and a friend.
Salwa Karoui, wife of detained Tunisian media mogul and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, speaks during an election campaign rally in Tunis, Tunisia, September 13, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - RC1981714B10

Canada-based lobbyist and ex-Mossad agent Ari Ben-Menashe reports being paid $250,000 to advocate for defeated Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui — even though Karoui has denied ever hiring him.

Karoui’s $1 million contract with Ben-Menashe’s Dickens & Madson upended the Tunisian presidential race after Al-Monitor first reported on the firm’s lobbying filing with the US Department of Justice in October. Now new filings indicate that Ben-Menashe was paid $250,000 the month before via two intermediaries: Karoui’s wife, Salwa Smaoui, and Salim Hamdadou, whom Ben-Menashe identified as a friend of Karoui’s.

The reported payments were made soon after the first round of the Tunisian elections, which saw Karoui advance to the second round along with eventual victor Kais Saied. Ben-Menashe told Al-Monitor that Smaoui and Hamdadou paid him because Karoui was in jail at the time on money laundering charges unrelated to his lobbying.

Four days before his Aug. 23 arrest, Karoui hired Ben-Menashe to help arrange meetings with US officials and boost his profile ahead of the elections, according to the initial lobbying contract filed with US authorities. The contract was signed by one Mohamed Bouderbala, whom Karoui has denied knowing as he sought to distance himself from Ben-Menashe and Dickens & Madson amid an uproar in Tunisia. Karoui did not respond to a call to his media firm in Tunis.

The new filing says Ben-Menashe “maintained regular, ongoing telephone communications with the United States government in order to advise Karoui, but not for the purpose of altering United States policies” until the contract was terminated sometime in October. He told Al-Monitor that thanks to his advocacy, “we were able — through some friends in the United States — to get him out of jail just before the election.” He declined to identify who those friends were.

Click the image above to view the latest lobbying filing for Nabil Karoui.

Ben-Menashe said he couldn’t remember the exact day his contract with Karoui ended, but that it happened after the candidate was released from jail Oct. 9. He said he doesn’t expect to receive the remaining $750,000 promised under the terms of the contract. He told Al-Monitor that Youssef Zarrouk, a close confidant of Karoui, had promised to wire the full amount the day after the contract was signed, but the $1 million never arrived.

News of Karoui’s lobbying caused a stir in Tunisia, which bans foreign financing of elections and has a cap on campaign contributions that’s below the $1 million called for in the initial contract. The Democratic Current party filed a criminal complaint with the public prosecutor at the Tunis Court of First Instance, calling the contract a criminal act.

Ben-Menashe dismissed those charges in an interview with Al-Monitor today.

“I let the authorities in Tunisia know about it and they said it was okay,” he said. “It was right through to the top.”

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