Late last month, syndicated columnist Clarence Page appeared at a rally in Paris in support of the Mujahadin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian group that has been lobbying Washington to be removed from the U.S. government's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.
Before a huge crowd waving portraits of MEK leaders Maryam and Massoud Rajavi as well as Iranian flags, Page called for the MEK to be removed from the official terrorist organization list.
Contacted about the appearance by ProPublica, Page said he has decided to give back his speaking fee for the event, as well as reimburse the cost of travel to and from France, which was paid for by a group called the Organizing Committee for Convention for Democracy in Iran.
"I thought they were simply a group of Iranian exiles who were opposed to the regime in Tehran," Page said. "I later found out they can be construed as a MEK front group, and I don't think it's worth it to my reputation to be perceived as a paid spokesman for any political cause."
Page said he was paid a fee of $20,000 and travel expenses and that he attended the June 23 event during vacation time. He said he just arrived back at work from vacation and has not yet given back the money. He did not have the text of the speech he delivered, but he told ProPublica he spoke in favor of the MEK being removed from the list of terrorist organizations, a move he expects to occur shortly.
The MEK, which fiercely opposes the current regime in Iran, has mounted a high-priced lobbying and legal battle to get off the terrorist list in recent years. The group was placed on the list in 1997 by the Clinton Administration, which cited its record of attacks against Iranian targets. The group also "assassinated several U.S. military personnel and U.S. civilians working on defense projects in Tehran" in the 1970s when the U.S. was allied with the Shah, according to the State Department. The MEK says it has renounced violence. A federal appeals court last month ordered the State Department to decide within four months whether the MEK should remain on the list.
Groups supporting the MEK have paid millions of dollars to attract former officials and retired military officers to appear at events supporting the group in recent years. But because the MEK is an officially designated terrorist organization, it is illegal for Americans to accept money from the MEK itself. NBC reported in March that former officials had received subpoenas as part of a federal probe "focused on whether the former officials may have received funding, directly or indirectly, from the [MEK]."
Besides Page's role as a columnist whose work is distributed by Tribune Media Services, he is also a member of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board. Page has not written about Iran in his column recently, but the Tribune editorial board regularly weighs in on foreign policy. Last month, the paper called on the Obama administration to "ratchet up the economic pressure" on Iran in the dispute over the country's nuclear program. A spokeswoman for the Tribune did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Organizers assert that 100,000 people attended the Paris event last month, but that figure has not been independently verified. In a speech, Maryam Rajavi hailed the "unparalleled bipartisan coalition which has challenged the official policy" that labels the MEK a terrorist group.
Others attending the event last month include Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, former Bush administration official John Bolton, and several former high-ranking military officers.
"When I got involved with it, I saw the stellar list of VIPs who were also on the program, and I saw this to be another conference with another speech," Page said.
Page said the invitation to the event last month came through his agent Janet LeBrun Cosby and Bethesda-based Speakers Worldwide.