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Lawyers line up for a piece of embassy lobbying business
The Washington Diplomat / January 2004

By Larry Luxner

If you want to see the trappings of diplomacy in Washington, take a drive along tree-lined Massachusetts Avenue, where the colorful flags of dozens of embassies flutter from the tops of stately mansions.

But the real grunt work is done on K Street, where sleek steel-and-glass buildings house many of the capital's 17,500 or so lobbyists -- the hired guns who, for a fee, try to sway the White House, Congress and a bewildering array of federal agencies on behalf of their various clients.

Make no mistake about it: lobbying is a booming business in the nation's capital as countries from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe increasingly look for more influence on Capitol Hill than their often underfunded, unsophisticated embassies can provide.

And when it comes to the delicate art of lobbying on behalf of foreign government, lawyers are usually better than public-relations outfits.

At least that's the opinion of Paul S. Reichler, a registered lobbyist with Foley Hoag which along with Akin Gump, Patton Boggs, Kirkland & Ellis and Piper Rudnick are among the biggest and most influential law firms in Washington.

Foley Hoag's current clients include the governments of Guyana, Haiti, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania; the firm also represents private clients in Malaysia.

"When you lobby for a domestic client, there are domestic political issues and constituencies you can mobilize, and members of Congress have to be concerned about these domestic constituencies," Reichler told The Washington Diplomat.

"However, when you lobby for a foreign government apart from those few, like Israel, which have major domestic constituencies you have to lobby on the merits. Electoral issues are not relevant. You have to be able to persuade lawmakers that doing what is favorable to your client is in the best interests of the United States."

He continued: "In order to have any chance of persuading, you have to master the facts. You have to become an expert on the substantive issues that affect relations between your client and the United States, because if you go into a meeting and you're uninformed and you just mouth platitudes, the door will get slammed in your face."

Reichler, 56 and a Harvard Law School graduate, said that being trustworthy is "a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one.

"People, whether they're on the Hill or Foggy Bottom, will only want to see you because they consider you a useful source. You have to have access to information that they don't have," he said. "That's why lawyers tend to be more effective at this, becuase we're used to preparing cases for trial. We know the importance of studying and absorbing and organizing masses of facts into a comprehensive statement."

Reichler should know. He lobbied for Nicaragua back in the 1980s, at a time when that Central American country was ruled by Sandinistas at war with U.S.-backed contras.

"I represented the government of Nicaragua in a very famous lawsuit at the International Court of Justice over the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by the CIA, and we won that suit," he recalled. "That was part of our strategy. We figured that by winning that suit, we'd persuade enough members of Congress to vote against aid for the contras, and in fact that's what happened."

Reichler has been practicing law since 1973, and has been a registered lobbyist since 1980. He began representing Guyana in 1990, lobbying on a pro bono basis for opposition politician Cheddi Jagan and his left-leaning People's Progressive Party. Until recently, he also represented the Guatemalan government, serving as one of two international mediators in the boundary dispute between Guatemala and Belize.

The firm continues to represent Haiti, "advising the government with respect to the Organization of American States mediation process and attempting to solve the political impasse that would allow democratic elections to go forward and reopen international financing for Haiti."

Foley Hoag has also been very active in pushing for the enactment and expansion of the African Growth and Opportunity Act on behalf of Uganda.

In fact, foreign government representation accounts for 40% of the business at Foley Hoag's Washington office, which has 16 lawyers. In addition, the firm has over 250 attorneys at its Boston headquarters, and is about to open a branch in China.

Mark Cowan is a partner with Patton Boggs, whose annual revenues come to around $160 million.

"We have one of the largest foreign representation practices in Washington," said Cowan, who spent seven years with the CIA before joining Patton Boggs four years ago. "I'm often the one talking to these countries."

According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Patton Boggs represents the governments of Angola, Costa Rica, Mexico, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; it also works for half a dozen other countries which the firm declined to identify.

"We have people here who spent a lot of time overseas, including some who have spent extensive amounts of time in the Middle East," said Cowan, who oversees business development for the firm. "We understand that there are differences and nuances in each culture, and it's important to learn them."

Among other things, Patton Boggs has secured orders freezing billions of dollars of assets in multiple foreign jurisdictions for the government of Qatar, managed to slash by 50% a U.S. Department of Transportation fine against a major Asian airline, and won more than $500 million in judgments against Iraqi government-owned banks and agencies for 20 international banks.

"We have both the depth and breadth of international experience," said Cowan. "I'm not talking just about subject matter, but also depth in terms of our bipartisanship. We have both Democrats and Republicans in the firm, so that gives us the ability to address matters universally in Washington."

Hired guns working for Patton Boggs include Tim Chorba, former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, and Rodney Slater, a former U.S. secretary of transportation.

It's hard to get law firms to comment on specific cases or clients, let alone fees. One of the largest, Akin Gump, won't even name the countries it represents either in interviews or on its official website.

"There's a wide disparity in fees," said Reichler. "Sometimes, a government will hire somebody to deal with one specific situation of a temporary nature. Other times, they'll hire lobbyists to help in connection with a visit by a head of state. But a comprehensive lobbying program to deal with all of the issues is much more expensive."

Very few such programs cost below $30,000 a month plus expenses, he said, while very few are above $60,000 a month; the exceptions, he said, are mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia, which "pay much more than that upper limit."

Reichler represents no Middle Eastern governments, though he does have private clients in the predominantly Muslim nation of Malaysia.

In October, Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, outraged millions of Americans and others when he accused Jews of "ruling the world by proxy" and said that 1.3 billion Muslims could not be "defeated by a few million Jews."

Reichler called the situation "unique," explaining that "with damage control, the best thing is to be honest. There is no point defending the statement itself. It was bad, it was wrong,, and it's not appropriate to defend. But it is still possible to defend Malaysia, and in this particular case, it was important to point out that these were personal sentiments, not the policy of the Malaysian government."

He added that Malaysia's new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, "is a very decent, open-minded and tolerant man who has a reputation for unimpeachable integrity."

Another important law firm involved in lobbying is Kirkland & Ellis, which is considered among the top five firms most frequently used by Fortune 500 companies ranging from Abbott Laboratories to Verizon.

The company's oldest and largest office is in Chicago, where 500 lawyers occupy 11 floors and provide a full spectrum of litigation, transactional, intellectual property, bankruptcy and tax services to publicly and privately held companies.

The firm's Washington office, established in 1930, has around 140 lawyers with a special focus on legislative, regulatory and administrative law, and issues of public policy. Kirkland & Ellis also has offices in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and London.

Yet another heavy hitter in Washington is Piper Rudnick, which merged with Verner Liipfert last year. The combined company has 900 lawyers and represents the governments of Afghanistan, Cote d'Ivoire, Cyprus, Ethiopia, India, Malawi, Slovenia and Taiwan.

Partner Larry Levinson said the firm's foreign clients also include the Mexican Senate as well as Montenegro, the only former Yugoslav republic to remain politically linked to Serbia.

Some countries do have important domestic constituencies. One of the most famous is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has for years made sure the United States remained a strong supporter of Israel through its lobbying campaigns.

But other, lesser-known groups have also been quite effective on Capitol Hill.

The Washington-based Armenian National Committee of America recently spearheaded a fax campaign that got the Bush administration to reverse a controversial immigration proposal born out of post-9/11 concerns over terrorism.

Armenia had been included on a list of countries whose non-immigrant male nationals over the age of 16 must register and report their movements to the Immigration & Naturalization Services.

Within the first 24 hours of issuing an "action alert," over 10,000 ANCA members from all 50 states sent Internet-based protest faxes to Bush, expressing the Armenian-American community's profound opposition to this action. Some 60% of those faxes came from California, home to many of the estimated 1.5 million Americans of Armenian origin.

ANCA has also raised its voice on other issues, including an effort to incrase trade between the United States and Armenia. Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, aim to extend permanent normal trade relations to Armenia, ensuring lower tariffs on Armenian imports to the U.S. and givign greater Armenian access to U.S. government credit facilities on a permanent basis.

"We are not foreign agents," said Elizabeth S. Chouldjian, ANCA's communications director. "ANCA is a grass-roots organization with our main headquarters in Washington and regional offices in Boston and Los Angeles. We don't have memberships per se, but we reach tens of thousands of people on a weekly basis through our e-mails."

On Dec. 9, ANCA launched its 2004 Voter Education Campaign, in which a four-page questionnaire will be sent to all presidential candidates, and a two-page questionnaire to all incumbents and challengers seeking to win a seat in the upcoming 109th Congress.

Responses to the questionnaires will be widely distributed to Armenian-Americans prior to election day, "in order to help voters make informed choices at the ballot box on Nov. 2, 2004."

Chouldjian told The Washington Diplomat that ANCA's main concern has been Turkey's "ongoing denial" of the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which an estimated one million Armenians died.

"It's an issue that speaks to the heart of every single Armenian in this country," she said. "For years, the Turkish government has been hiring top lobbying firms in an effort to 'clean up' its its massive human-rights problems."

Other policy issues at the top of ANCA's agenda include continued self-determination for the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabagh; conditions on U.S. aid to Azerbaijan, the Turkish blockade of Armenia.

"The Armenian-American community has made great strides over the last few decades to express its concerns and reach out to elected officials, as any good citizen does," Chouldjian said. "We're working within the American political system to get our issues and concerns across."

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