Mugged on “K” Street?

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Remember H.R. 2003?

Do you remember H.R. 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act”)? That was a bill sponsored by Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) to promote the “advancement of human rights, democracy, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, peacekeeping capacity building, and economic development in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.” It passed by a unanimous vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on October 2, 2007. A motley crew of human rights advocates and defenders, grassroots activists, international human rights organizations and others toiled long and hard to help get that bill passed. While we were pounding the pavement on Capitol Hill, guess what the other side was doing?

Getting Fleeced on “K” Street

Dick Armey’s army at DLA Piper was leading the cavalry charge on the Hill against H.R. 2003. Or were they? The evidence from the official lobbying reports show that the “K” Street boys (“K” street is the address of choice for the high powered Washington lobbyists) were on “easy street” lobbying for the dictators in Ethiopia. In the Sharkdom of Lobbying, DLA Piper is BIG, “with 3,500 lawyers located in 29 countries and 67 offices throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the US.” Between 9/01/2007-7/30/2008, DLA Piper was “variously” paid by the “Government of Ethiopia” $1,351,851.25 for fees and expenses. DLA Piper made several hundred “contacts” with U.S. officials, media reps and others for the “Government of Ethiopia.” With the exception of a few face-to-face meetings with members of Congress, all of the other official contacts were with congressional staffers by email. (See fn. 1) The Piper firm made over 114 contacts with U.S. officials on H.R. 2003, almost all of them by email to Congressional staffers.

The Dewey and LeBoeuf (DL) firm was also retained to do additional lobbying. DL is a prominent “white-shoe firm” (a phrase used to describe leading American professional services firms that have been in existence for more than a century) with many Fortune 500 clients. Between 12/26/2007 and 02/01/2008, DL snagged four payments from the “Government of Ethiopia” ($183,307.48; $28,642.50; $73,962.30; $300,000) for professional fees and expenses. DL arranged a total of 17 face-to-face meetings and 13 telephone contacts, principally with officials in the U.S. State Department Office of East African Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs. (See fn. 1.)

The “Government of Ethiopia” paid the Mark Saylor public relations firm $328,040.18 for consulting fees and expenses between 3/19/2007 and 9/29/2008. (See fn. 1.) The firm made 78 phone calls, wrote 35 emails and arranged 13 in-person meetings, mostly with representatives of major U.S. media outlets. Saylor claims that its “principals serve as trusted advisors, offering clients strategic and tactical counsel on sensitive matters.” Highlighting its “aggressive” style, Saylor brags: “We find opportunities where others see only disaster. We combine swift action with careful judgment.” Saylor sure knows how to find opportunity in disaster for themselves.

The total payments by the “Government of Ethiopia” to the various lobbying firms in 2007-2008 exceeded $2,265,802.

Inscrutably, between November 2007 and October 2008, “lobbyist payments from Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party” were made in the amount of over $91,418 12 “for membership fee and contribution.” [2] (See fn. 2.)

Paying the Piper of “K” Street?

The gold diggers of “K” Street can spot a sucker a mile away. Dick Armey (who resigned from DLA Piper a couple of weeks ago over the bad publicity caused by his FreedomWorks organization turning out anti-heath care reform protesters to disrupt town hall meetings) was the point man lobbying to defeat H.R. 5680 (later H.R. 2003) because the dictators in Ethiopia believed he could best defend their cause on the Hill. After all, Armey was a former republican majority leader in the House and the second most powerful person in that institution. He was also one of the key leaders of the “Republican Revolution” which enabled Republicans to gain control of Congress in 1994. Armey was more connected to political power on the Hill than Siamese twins to each other. The dictators thought he could walk on water. Indeed, Armey did a pretty good job by making sure that the bill never saw the light of day on the House floor after it passed committee in October, 2007. No doubt, he had Republican speaker Dennis Hastert’s ear on the issue. But Democrats “thumped” the Republicans in November 2007, and the whole game changed.[3]

But what really happened to the dictators of Ethiopia on “K” Street? To say they were taken to the cleaners is to state the obvious. They paid millions to have lobbyists shovel hundreds of emails to Congressional staffers, make a few telephone calls and arrange even fewer in-person meetings with American officials. That is not exactly getting the biggest bang for one’s lobbying buck. What a monumental waste of the scarce resources of one of the poorest countries in the world! What a rip-off! But the old saw must be true: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

To fathom what happened to the dictators on “K” Street, one must appreciate the lobbying industry and its role in the American political process. Lobbyists (a term which came in to use in the late 1800s to describe the wheelers and dealers who hanged out in government building lobbies to chat with law makers before legislative sessions) are a special breed of influence peddlers in the American political system. Even though their activities are fully protected by the expressive freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, lobbyists suffer from a bad public image. In the past few years, lobbyists have been at the center of various high profile political corruption scandals in Washington, and various members of Congress were forced to resign or ended up in jail.

Lobbyists are often hired because of their presumed expertise in the legislative process, their knowledge of certain areas of public policy and special connections with certain influential members of Congress and their staff. As of 2007, there were some 15,000 actively registered lobbyists in Washington, and spending on lobbying exceeded $3.3 billion in 2008. In theory, the principal task of lobbyists in the legislative process is to prepare and present information to members of Congress and their staff, and to set up and attend face-to-face meetings. They also play a critical role in arranging testimony for Congressional hearings. In practice, they do a lot more, including drafting legislation, mobilizing grassroots activists, campaign fund raising and other activities. The most effective lobbyists are those with experience as Congressional insiders, often former members or staffers who use their skills and experience to navigate the circuitous legislative process.

For the dictators, Armey and DLA Piper may have appeared to be winning hands in the Republican-controlled Congress. Armey was at the top of his game. They never thought the Republicans would be dislodged from power, and arrogantly and ill-advisedly put all their eggs in the Republican basket. To add insult to injury, they targeted some powerful members of Congress and made them enemies by vilifying and harshly criticizing them. When the Democrats took control of the House, it was time for the dictators to pay the piper. They had burned their bridges and discredited themselves with Hill Democrats, and now they are facing the music for their arrogant miscalculations.

Banana Republic Running (Buying) Capitol Hill?

“While they are entitled to their own opinion,” quipped the arch dictator in Ethiopia, “this government and this country are incapable, unwilling and unable to be run like some banana republic from Capitol Hill. It is very worrisome that some of these individuals appear to have entertained such views.”

What is “very worrisome”, indeed downright creepy, is the fact that an outlaw dictator could spend millions of dollars to influence (buy) the Government of the United States while berating and castigating it. But that’s one of the great things about America: Even the worst human rights abusers, thugs and criminals in the world are given the opportunity to be heard by the representatives of the American people. This does not mean that there are no reasons to be alarmed over the fact that dictators are spending millions to buy influence and corrupt American democracy. We should all be concerned. These dictators are not accountable to the American people, and could not care less about the requirements of the U.S. Constitution. Hiding behind the silk curtains of the lobbying firms and defended by legions of lobbyists, these dictatorships could inflict serious damage by depriving American citizens of their right to clean government. More troubling is the fact that these dictators could overwhelm the efforts of grassroots efforts of American citizens by spending their millions like a drunken sailor.

But there is something weird about the whole situation. Today sleazy dictators are using lobbyists to do work normally and traditionally done by diplomatic missions. While most governments who uphold the rule of law seek to influence American policy through normal diplomatic channels, dictators are increasingly relying on lobbyists and fat cat influence peddlers to circumvent the regular diplomatic process. This presents an obvious question: What do the fully staffed and resourced diplomatic missions do in their day jobs?

Anyway, under Barack Obama’s watch, the panhandling dictators are being defanged so that they will not spread their venom in the American body politics. No doubt, they will keep trying new tricks to get back in the game. But President Obama has made his position crystal clear to Africa’s tin pot dictators: “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” and “history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions.”

The Little People United Can Never Be Defeated

Back in late 2007, supporters of Ethiopian human rights were all bent out of shape worrying that Armey’s army would vanquish us on the legislative battlefield on Capitol Hill. But the E-Mail Warriors of DLA Piper, DL and Saylor proved to be no match for the defiant ragtag crew of pavement-pounding, Capitol-Hill-hoofing Ethiopian grassroots advocates. For the millions they paid to lobbyists, the dictators could not get a single vote against H.R. 2003 on the House floor. The bill got stuck in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and failed to make it to the Senate floor because of entangled Senate procedures, unrelated to its merits.

What is the lesson to be learned? The dictators can spend millions on lobbying to buy American politicians to do their bidding. They can spend all the money they want to change their ugly image. But the fact remains that even the mighty Goliath DLA Piper could be defeated if thousands of little Davids band together.[4] If the little people unite, they can kick the rumps of the “K” Street boys and their sleazy paymasters: Exhibit A — H.R. 2003.