Ex-U.S. Congressional Heavyweights Blocking Action Against Ethiopia

By Ken Silverstein
Harper’s Magazine
July 25, 2007

There have been a series of accounts out of Ethiopia recently that describe a nasty situation there, including a Human Rights Watch report earlier this month that said the Ethiopian military had “forcibly displaced thousands of civilians in the country’s eastern Somali . . . while escalating its campaign against a separatist insurgency movement.” Government troops were “destroying villages and property, confiscating livestock, and forcing civilians to relocate,” according to Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the military strategy behind them, these abuses violate the laws of war.” Eyewitness accounts offered to Human Rights Watch said Ethiopian troops had been “burning homes and property, including the recent harvest and other food stocks intended for the civilian population, confiscating livestock and, in a few cases, firing upon and killing fleeing civilians.”

Despite that record, the Bush Administration views Ethiopia as an important counterterrorism ally, especially given Ethiopia’s recent involvement in Somalia, and annually provides the regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. But some in Congress have grown weary of abuses committed by Zenawi’s government. Earlier this month a House subcommittee passed a bill that would limit American aid to Ethiopia and ban government officials linked to human rights abuses from coming to the United States. In the Senate, Patrick Leahy of Vermont is seeking passage of a measure that would review some of the military assistance that is being provided.

But two congressmen-turned-lobbyists — former House Majority Leaders Richard Armey, the Republican from Texas, and Missouri Democrat Richard Gephardt — are working hard to block full congressional action against the Zenawi regime. The duo work with the firm of DLA Piper, which federal disclosure records show is being paid at least $50,000 per month by the Ethiopian government for “strategic advice and counsel.”

In 2006, the House International Relations Committee approved the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act, which criticized the government for its human rights record, called for it to free jailed opposition leaders and restricted security assistance. But the full House never voted on the bill. Two sources that follow the issue — one a former Hill staffer and the other a lobbyist on African affairs–tell me that Armey twisted the arm of then — House Speaker Denny Hastert to ensure that it didn’t come up for a vote. “Armey has a lot of influence over there,” the former Hill staffer said. “A lot of people in the GOP leadership owe their positions to him.”

Armey has no pull with the new Democratic leadership so now Gephardt has apparently been called on to block full passage of this year’s version of the bill. Gephardt, incidentally, also lobbies for the government of Turkey (another Piper client to the tune of $100,000 per month), as was recently detailed in a terrific New Republic piece in which author Michael Crowley wrote about Gephardt’s efforts to stop Congress from declaring as genocide the Turkish massacre of Armenians during the early twentieth century:

A few years ago, [Gephardt] was a working-class populist who cast himself as a tribune of the underdog–including the Armenians. Back in 1998, Gephardt attended a memorial event hosted by the Armenian National Committee of America at which, according to a spokeswoman for the group, “he spoke about the importance of recognizing the genocide.” Two years later, Gephardt was one of three House Democrats who co-signed a letter to then House Speaker Dennis Hastert urging Hastert to schedule an immediate vote on a genocide resolution. “We implore you,” the letter read, arguing that Armenian-Americans “have waited long enough for Congress to recognize the horrible genocide.” Today, few people are doing more than Gephardt to ensure that the genocide bill goes nowhere. It’s one thing to flip-flop on, say, tax cuts or asbestos reform. But, when it comes to genocide, you would hope for high principle to carry the day.

Piper’s lobbyists have been working the “war on terrorism” angle hard, arguing that even a hand-slap of Ethiopia for human rights abuses will jeopardize its support in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. (And we all know what a smashingly successful collaboration that’s been.)

I called Armey and Gephardt but never heard back from them. Piper did, however, send me a statement which said:

The U.S. first established diplomatic relations with Ethiopia more than a century ago and Ethiopia remains a close ally today, particularly in the global war against terrorism. It is crucial for the United States to have friends and allies in the strategically important Horn of Africa region who are committed to democracy, stability and moderation. The firm is assisting Ethiopia in strengthening bilateral relations with the U.S., including increasing humanitarian, economic and development assistance, expanding trade and investment opportunities, and enhancing relationships with financial, academic and public policy institutions.

I had heard that former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, Chairman of the Global Board of Piper and Co-Chair of its Government Controversies Practice Group, was also working on the account. The firm’s statement said that Mitchell “has never lobbied or done legal work on behalf of Ethiopia in connection with DLA Piper’s representation.” However, Piper declined to say whether Mitchell had played a role in winning the Ethiopia deal or whether he was offering strategic advice or playing some other role in the contract.