Paving the Way for Ties With Cuba

By Judy Sarasohn
Thursday, November 23, 2006

Perhaps a sign of the imminent post-Castro times, a small but official congressional delegation will be taking a quick trip to Cuba next month for a look-see. Helping to round up some interesting folks for the lawmakers to talk to is Sarah Stephens, a policy activist who has been trying for years to foster dialogue with the United States' communist neighbor.

Stephens, who had been working to free up travel to the island, recently opened the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which will expand her work to the Southern Hemisphere, particularly Venezuela. Formerly at the Center for International Policy, Stephens arranges for informal groups to visit Cuba to talk to a wide range of people.

"She's good at appreciating all the perspectives that people bring to bear," said Lance Walker, an aide to Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Flake, who is heading the trip, and Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), who is also going, are leaders of the congressional Cuba working group. "She's probably left of center, and we're on the right somewhere," Walker added.

Working with her foundation, Stephens is allowed to do a limited amount of lobbying. She doesn't see her trips as lobbying, because they don't deal with legislation. "I spend most of my time making a general case for Cuba," she said. "If people were really talking to each other, we'd have a much saner and more productive foreign policy."

Stephens says the Democratic takeover of Congress "could potentially mean a lot to us" in helping to increase U.S. engagement with Cuba. But it's not going to be easy, she says. After all, there's still the Bush administration. "We still have some serious obstacles," she said. But "the earth has changed under our feet."

Emphasis on Oversight

Lobbyists around town are busy adjusting their specialties and hiring priorities to get in sync with the new Democratic agendas on the Hill. The Carmen Group, for one, is building a new government oversight unit and has allied itself with one of the big names in congressional oversight: Franklin Silbey.

Silbey, who has his own shop helping clients navigate congressional and federal investigations, had 17 years of experience on the congressional side. More than 30 years ago, he went to work for then-Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.) as chief of investigations. He was staff director of the Senate Judiciary's oversight subcommittee and chief of investigations for the Senate Labor Committee. Silbey worked on investigations of such matters as malfunctions of the M-16 rifle, federal lease abuses and Air Force appropriations.

Although he will keep his own company, Silbey will work with the Carmen Group and build a team there. "We're taking Congress at its word: It's going to be more focused squarely on oversight," David Carmen said.

Carmen and Silbey said their approach will be to urge clients to be cooperative with congressional investigators, rather than to take a legalistic approach and be obstructionist.

"If they don't adapt to a changed political environment, they will pay a penalty -- and in some cases, it's long overdue," Silbey said. "One ounce of candor is worth a ton of baloney. You're not going to fool people like Carl Levin, Henry Waxman and John Dingell." The three Democrats are among the leading investigative lawmakers.

Food Industry Moves

The newly merged Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association has gotten a new lineup. Pat Verduin, most recently an executive at ConAgra Foods Inc., has joined GMA/FPA as senior vice president and chief science officer.

The merger is formally effective at the end of the year, though the two associations are virtually functioning as one now. Calvin M. Dooley, a former Democratic congressman from California, was head of the FPA and then named to lead the merged group; GMA chief executive C. Manly Molpus is retiring.

Mary Sophos, who was senior vice president of government affairs for the GMA, will head the merged lobby shop. Steve McCroddan, who was at the FPA, will be chief financial and chief administrative officer.

Here and There

Also moving about town . . . Stephanie Childs, vice president of global public policy at the Information Technology Association of America, has been named vice president of government relations for Avaya Inc. She is a former Bush appointee at the Commerce Department.

Neil Dhillon is the new managing director of Ruder Finn Public Relations, replacing Barbara Shipley, who has gone to AARP. Dhillon worked at Hill and Knowlton and the Department of Transportation in the Clinton administration.

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