WASHINGTON Sarah Palin, seen as a possible Republican presidential candidate, has paid tens of thousands of dollars for foreign policy advice to a U.S. firm that represents three overseas governments, campaign finance documents show.
While legal, the adviser's work as an agent for other countries raises questions about whether Palin is receiving impartial information about foreign relations and could become a subject of debate if she runs for president or another elected office.
Financial reports filed by the former Alaska governor's fundraising committee known as SarahPAC, show that between December 2009 and the end of May 2010, it made seven payments to Orion Strategies.
The firm is a Washington consulting firm founded and led by Randy Scheunemann, a lobbyist who served as a senior foreign policy adviser to John McCain in his 2008 U.S. presidential bid and to Palin when she became McCain's Republican running mate.
Controversy over campaign advisers who work as lobbyists for foreign or domestic interests can often blight national political campaigns. At least five of McCain's aides quit his presidential campaign because of their lobbying activities.
The administration of President Barack Obama has put rules in place to try to restrict the hiring of lobbyists for senior government jobs.
Palin's committee made a $30,000 payment to Orion on December 2, 2009, and six other $10,000 payments to the firm between January and the end of May of this year. The reports say that at least three of the payments were for consulting work on international issues.
Documents filed by Orion Strategies with the Foreign Agents Registration Unit of the U.S. Department of Justice report that from December 2009 to May 2010 -- the same period when it was being paid consulting fees by SarahPAC -- the firm was formally registered under federal law as an agent for three foreign governments.
Orion directly represents Georgia and Taiwan, and has been retained by Montenegro through a second Washington lobbying firm.
Scheunemann, whose ties to Georgia stoked controversy when he advised McCain's campaign, is not known to be working as a paid adviser for any other likely presidential contenders.
Neither Palin, SarahPAC, Scheunemann nor Orion responded to telephone and e-mail requests for comment.
U.S. law requires U.S. agents representing foreign governments to disclose their activities. But they are not legally restricted from acting as advisers to U.S. political campaigns.
Palin has kept herself in the limelight by backing conservative candidates for midterm elections this year and making high-profile appearances.
But she has declined to say whether she will seek the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
'FAIR GAME' FOR POLITICAL DEBATE
"When you have political figures, whether they're current candidates or future candidates, you want to know who they hang out with," said Jan Baran, an expert on election law who served as chief counsel to the Republican National Committee and the 1988 presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush.
The foreign agent work of paid campaign advisors, Baran said is "open season, fair game" for political debate.
Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, said that the issue of campaign advisers' work as lobbyists or foreign agents has periodically caused controversy during recent political campaigns. "We see this all the time. It's always raised either by the press or by an opponent.
"What saves (Scheunemann) and (Palin) is that she's an undeclared candidate. She can always say, 'I'm not a candidate; I'm not making official policy; he's not influencing official policy.'" But Sabato added: "You know that will be raised if she runs" for public office again.
The Justice Department foreign agent registration filings by Orion list numerous occasions on which Scheunemann personally engaged in activities promoting the interests of his firm's foreign clients since last December.
He met with or phoned numerous congressional aides about "Georgian security issues," discussed Montenegro-related matters with a State Department official and in Congress, and discussed matters related to Taiwan, including the sensitive subject of U.S. arms sales, with congressional aides.
The Justice Department filings also describe how Scheunemann introduced politicians and journalists in Washington to Georgian government officials.
The filings say that over a recent six-month period, Orion was paid $227,309 in fees and expenses by Georgia's National Security Council; $60,000 by another Washington firm on behalf of the government of Montenegro, and $52,000 by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, a Washington unit serving as the official U.S. representative of the government of Taiwan.
A one-time foreign policy adviser to Republican senators, Scheunemann was a prominent advocate of U.S. efforts to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and David Storey)