Shutting the Revolving Door on Sudan

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, March 6, 2006

Leaflets were stapled to trees in a friendly Capitol Hill neighborhood a few months ago. They featured a short article about a resident who had been hired as a lobbyist for the government of Sudan, one of the most violent regimes on earth.

Their message was simple and biting: There goes the neighborhood!

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) agreed with the sentiment, but he did more than tack up a few sheets of paper. As chairman of the House panel that funds the State Department, Wolf complained enough in public and private that the lobbyist, Robert J. Cabelly, dropped Sudan as a client last month.

"No one should be representing the Sudan government," Wolf said in his office last week after screening a videotape that documented the horrors of government attacks on Sudanese villagers. Lobbying for Sudan, he said, would be like fronting for Joseph Stalin during the worst of his murderous reign.

Wolf also sees the Cabelly episode as part of a larger problem. He is incensed that former federal employees such as Cabelly routinely use expertise they gained in government to help foreign leaders with repugnant reputations.

As a result, he wants to slow, and in some cases stop, the revolving door between government and K Street. He may get his chance soon.

Lawmakers are working to revise lobbying laws as a way to protect themselves from the political fallout of recent guilty pleas on bribery charges by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.).

As part of that effort, Wolf wants to prevent former U.S. ambassadors from lobbying for the countries in which they served for 10 years after they leave government. He would also impose lengthy restrictions on other high-ranking and highly informed officials, such as station chiefs of the CIA.

"Strong limitations of more than a year must be considered, not just for former members of Congress and top aides, but those in the executive branch including CIA station chiefs, ambassadors, high-ranking State Department officials and the like," Wolf wrote to the House Republican leadership earlier this year.

His proposal is a slight but noteworthy detour from the main course of Congress's lobbying debate this year. Most of the talk is about toughening revolving-door restrictions on lawmakers and their staffs. Wolf thinks that Cabelly helps make the case for expanding the list and discussed the incident at some length last week.

Cabelly, 55, is managing director of a Washington consulting firm called C/R International LLC. He worked for 13 years in the State Department and the White House's National Security Council. During those years, which extended through the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and one year into Bill Clinton's term, he focused on African relations.

After he left government, Cabelly represented a series of foreign governments for large fees. His clients have included Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia and Sudan. The State Department last year rated the human rights records of the first three governments as "poor" and Sudan's as "extremely poor."

Cabelly, who declined to speak publicly on the matter, reported to the Justice Department that his contract with Sudan paid his firm $530,000 a year plus transportation expenses.

The regime in Khartoum is considered one of the most vicious in the world. Its attacks against citizens in the Darfur region of western Sudan, in particular, have been widely described as genocide, including by the U.S. government.

The State Department wrote the following in 2005: "In Darfur, government and government-supported militia (Janjaweed) committed serious abuses during the year, including razing hundreds of villages of African tribes. Information available . . . indicated that genocide had been committed in Darfur, and the government and the Janjaweed bore responsibility."

Wolf saw the aftermath of those atrocities firsthand during a congressionally sponsored visit to the region in 2004. He returned to Washington even more committed than he already was to ending the government-sanctioned beatings, rapes and bombings that have killed millions over the past decade.

So when he read a brief news item about Cabelly's lobbying contract with Sudan last fall, he flew into a public rage.

In a speech on the House floor, Wolf called it "shocking news" that a lobbying shop had taken on so heinous a client. "Where will the lobbying wheel of fortune stop next?" he said.

Wolf called the State Department to make his opinion absolutely clear, and he wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to formalize his protest. In the letter to Rice, he said that Washington "appeared up for grabs to the highest bidder, with well-reputed lobbying shops representing the interest of some of the world's most unsavory governments."

The lawmaker trained his fire on the State Department because State was responsible for allowing Cabelly to lobby for Sudan. Clinton issued an executive order imposing sanctions on Sudan that prevented U.S. citizens from doing business with that country. Last summer, the State Department issued Cabelly a waiver from that ban.

Wolf's subsequent objections created serious trouble at State. The last thing any agency wants is to irritate the person who chairs a committee that controls its budget. In response to Wolf, the State Department tried to justify its decision by implying that the lobbyist was an informal back channel to the Sudanese.

"We believed that Robert Cabelly, in advising the Sudanese Government, would provide a perspective on United States concerns and policy that would be useful in advancing the peace process and resolving the crisis in Darfur," the department said in a statement.

Such double-edged arrangements are common in diplomacy. "When I was in government service, having a variety of channels open to governments could on occasion be useful," said Chester A. Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs and a former boss of Cabelly's. "If the State Department wanted a channel of that kind, Cabelly has a track record of service in the executive branch and in Congress. He's a known quantity to a number of people still today."

Wolf rejected that explanation as improbable in Cabelly's instance and said he considered it inadequate even if it were true. "If you want to send a message, you don't hire lobbyists," Wolf said, especially one who wrote and distributed government news releases.

"There's a dumbing-down of the standards in Washington," Wolf charged. He hopes that lobbying legislation will improve the city's ethical IQ.

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address He will be online to discuss proposed lobbying law changes today at noon at

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