Patrick Kennedy’s ties to Iranian exile group becomes campaign issue in South Jersey
By MATT FRIEDMAN
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the husband of New Jersey congressional candidate Amy Kennedy, was paid nearly $60,000 to deliver a speech last year in Albania to a controversial group that opposes the current regime in Iran but was considered a terrorist organization by the United States until 2012.
Amy Kennedy’s main opponent in the 2nd Congressional District’s Democratic primary, Brigid Harrison, has made Patrick Kennedy’s finances a campaign issue, and is calling the fee he earned from the opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) for the speech he delivered in February 2019 “dirty money.”
“Let’s be clear: MEK engaged in a well-documented effort to buy off American politicians, and in accepting this fee, the Kennedys demonstrated that they are ‘for sale,’” Harrison said in a statement. “For the United States to counter terrorism around the globe, it must oppose terrorism in all its forms. Accepting inflated ‘speaking fees’ for advocacy by an organization that is often described as a cult, that today still requires it members to divorce and remain celibate is antithetical to American and Democratic values.”
According to a candidate financial disclosure Amy Kennedy recently filed with the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, MEK paid Patrick Kennedy — the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy who has helped bankroll efforts to elect his wife to Congress — $59,996 sometime between Jan. 1, 2019 and April 1, 2020.
It’s not the first time Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman who now lives with his wife in South Jersey, has been paid to speak in support of MEK, and he’s far from the only U.S. or New Jersey politician to do so.
MEK opposes the current Iranian regime and for years was aligned with the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Prominent politicians from both major U.S. political parties have spoken in support of the group, often because of its opposition to the Iranian regime.
After an intense lobbying campaign that won the support of many U.S. politicians, MEK was removed from the government’s terrorism list in 2012. MEK has been exiled from Iran for decades.
In a December 2016 opinion piece for POLITICO, former State Department Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin — responding to former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli’s defense of the MEK — wrote that the U.S. government “has blamed the MEK for killing three U.S. Army colonels and three U.S. contractors, bombing the facilities of numerous U.S. companies and killing innocent Iranians.”
In 2011, Patrick Kennedy emceed a Capitol Hill rally urging the State Department to remove the group from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, according to the magazine Foreign Policy. He acknowledged being paid $25,000 for that speech.
Patrick Kennedy has spoken in favor of the group since then, including at July 2019 rally in Berlin. Sean Richardson, his chief of staff, said in an interview Wednesday the payment listed on Amy Kennedy’s financial disclosure was for a speech Patrick Kennedy gave in Albania, where MEK is headquartered. He said he believes the nearly $60,000 figure included travel expenses.
The speech in Albania was one of 14 for which Patrick Kennedy reported receiving compensation since 2019. He also earned $25,000 for a speech he delivered to another anti-Iranian regime group, the California Society for Democracy in Iran. His speaking fees ranged from $5,000 to the nearly $60,000 from MEK. Most of the speeches were delivered to health care companies.
Amy Kennedy and Harrison are running in the 2nd District Democratic primary for the party’s nomination to take on Democrat-turned-Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew.
In a statement, Yoli Navas, a spokesperson for Amy Kennedy, emphasized that Sen. Bob Menendez(D-N.J.), who has endorsed Harrison, supports MEK.
”In addition to Sen. Menendez and [Rep.] Eliot Engle (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the group is also supported by an endless string of notable government and military leaders including two former chairs of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean and Ed Rendell, John McCain, Nancy Pelosi and many others. Maybe Brigid should have googled ‘Bob Menendez’ instead of ‘typical losing campaign tactic,’” Navas said. ”Brigid’s blatant and insulting attempts to mislead voters won’t fool anyone. The people of South Jersey deserve a leader who wants to serve the community not themselves. “
Richardson, Patrick Kennedy’s chief of staff, said there’s nothing wrong with supporting an organization that backs democracy in Iran.
“Since about 2011, he’s been an active supporter of the organization and has spoken to them from time to time, like many senior congressional Democrats as well as Republicans,” Richardson said. “His support for the organization is rooted in his support for regime change in Iran. It’s pretty simple.”
“Does anyone other than Brigid Harrison think John McCain, Ted Kennedy, Louis Freeh, Tom Ridge, Hillary Clinton would do something that was bad for our foreign policy?“ Richardson said. “The claim’s absurd.”
Richardson also cited Menendez‘s support of the MEK.
Harrison’s campaign has based many of its attacks on Amy Kennedy on her husband’s record and finances, including highlighting a story from New Jersey Globe about how he was the sole donor of $500,000 to a previously-moribund super PAC that ran negative online ads against Harrison. The Harrison campaign has also gone after Patrick Kennedy for recently joining the board of Wellpath, a controversial company that runs health care services in some for-profit prisons and whose executives donated $10,000 to Amy Kennedy’s campaign.
Of the $816,000 Amy Kennedy had raised as of April 1, $250,000 came from a personal loan.