Lawyers told Steve Bannon and other managers of data firm Cambridge Analytica in 2014 that only U.S. citizens should be "making decisions about U.S. election activity," but the Cambridge teams working on several congressional campaigns that year were largely composed of foreign nationals anyway, according to two former staffers.
As first reported by the New York Times, attorney Lawrence Levy of Bracewell & Giuliani sent a memo to Bannon, conservative megadonor Rebekah Mercer and Cambridge founder Andrew Nix that said Nix would have to be "recused from substantive management of any such clients involved in U.S. elections" because Nix is not a U.S. national.
The memo from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's law firm, obtained by NBC News, also says that foreign nationals could collect and process data, but "may not play strategic roles including the giving of strategic advice to candidates, campaigns, political parties or independent expenditure committees."
It also advises that "final analysis of said data should be conducted by U.S. citizens and conveyed to any U.S. clients by such citizens."
But Chris Wylie, a 28-year-old Canadian who ran messaging for Cambridge out of its London office in 2014, said he worked on all the company's U.S. political campaigns in 2014, "and stopped at most of them, like Thom Tillis's campaign." Tillis ran for and won a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina in 2014.
Wylie said that many foreign nationals worked on the campaigns, and many were embedded in the campaigns around the U.S. "It was not just me," he said. "Like 20 other people were. We had Canadians, British, Eastern Europeans, Lithuanians, Germans, Romanians, Greeks."
"We weren't just working on messaging. We were instructing campaigns on which messages go where and to who."
Wylie said that his largely foreign team instructed the Tillis campaign "on the messaging. We crafted his messaging, we targeted his messaging."
He said he couldn't recall any American Cambridge employees working on the Tillis campaign. "There were three or four full-time CA staffers embedded in Tillis's campaign on the ground in Raleigh. All of them were foreign nationals."
Wylie left the company in December 2014.
A second former senior Cambridge staffer also said that most of the messaging team in 2014 was composed of foreign nationals. The staffer confirmed that there were foreign embeds in Raleigh on the Tillis campaign.
The staffer said that the team handling the data and data modeling back in London was largely Eastern European and did not include any Americans.
SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, did not respond to the specific assertion that foreign nationals were directly involved in messaging decisions, but has previously told NBC News that all personnel in strategic roles were U.S. nationals or green card holders. The company also said that Nix never had any strategic or operational role in U.S. campaigns.
An attorney for an electoral law watchdog group said he was "not aware" of the Federal Election Commission addressing whether the foreign national ban should specifically apply to a group like Cambridge Analytica.
"The general rule that a foreign national should not be directing or otherwise involved in decisions about contributions or expenditures made by a campaign or super PAC should apply, regardless of the formal role they have in the campaign or with the superPAC," said Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center. "The FEC has not squarely addressed this issue."
Fischer said that if the foreign national is only providing advice about expenditures, but is not part of the decision-making about the expenditures, "the FEC might say that that's okay."
Fischer also said Nix could also play a major role as long as he were not involved in how particular committees made expenditures.
The Campaign Legal Center has filed an unrelated complaint with the FEC that alleges Cambridge Analytica served as a conduit between the Trump campaign and a super PAC funded by the Mercer family during the 2016 campaign.
The FEC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.