By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009
A prominent Democratic fundraiser and ally of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is attempting to secure a lobbying contract with the pariah regime in Sudan, which has embarked on an aggressive effort to enlist U.S. support against allegations of genocide and war crimes.
Robert B. Crowe, a partner at Atlanta-based Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, has met with special U.S. envoy J. Scott Gration and several Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks in an attempt to garner support for the deal, which would give the Khartoum government its first official U.S. representative in nearly four years.
A State Department official said Gration and his aides initially rejected the application but have since urged Crowe to seek support from Congress before they reconsider the proposal. Kerry's office said a staff member was briefed about Crowe's plans but that the senator, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was not aware of them.
"The Obama administration is talking about engagement, and we believe in that," Crowe said in an interview. "If we can make a difference, we will. But if we get into this and determine we can't, we'll walk away."
The prospect of a lobbying deal for Sudan, however, has alarmed human rights activists and lawmakers focused on the conflict in its Darfur region, where up to 300,000 people have been killed by government-backed militias as part of what the United States has called an ongoing genocide.
"They are on our sanctions list and have been for some time, and I see no reason to allow them to have a lobbyist," said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Africa and global health subcommittee and a leader of the House Sudan caucus.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), another member of the caucus, agreed. "Would you represent Hitler? Would you represent Mao?" Wolf asked. "Anybody who does that ought to be blackballed in this town."
The lobbying discussions come as the Obama administration prepares to announce a new policy on Sudan after months of fierce internal debate between hard-liners such as U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, who favors keeping up pressure on Khartoum, and those such as Gration, who has endorsed a softer strategy.
Some State Department and White House officials are particularly uncomfortable with Gration's conciliatory approach to Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Gration has suggested easing sanctions on the regime and has likened such rewards to "giving out cookies" and "gold stars" to children.
The negotiations over a possible lobbying contract also underscore Bashir's aggressive efforts to enlist the help of prominent Westerners in burnishing the regime's international image. Earlier this year, Sudanese officials helped arrange a $1.3 million contract between former Ronald Reagan aide Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane and the nation of Qatar to participate in talks in Darfur, according to records obtained by The Washington Post.
The lobbying proposal arose out of discussions this year between aides to Kerry, who led a congressional delegation to Khartoum in April, and Bob Arnot, a physician and television personality active in humanitarian causes, according to several of those involved in the debate. Arnot then approached Crowe with the idea, leading to an application this summer with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which must approve any U.S. firm doing business with Sudan.
A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said OFAC rejected the initial application on Gration's recommendation. That led to further talks between Crowe, Gration and other administration officials. "It was our understanding that Nelson Mullins was going to work on getting support from key members of Congress about the work they wanted to pursue in Sudan," the official said.
Crowe, a lawyer and lobbyist, is a longtime Democratic figure in Massachusetts who served as co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee's 2004 fundraising efforts and who now serves as co-chairman of Kerry's campaign and political action committees. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he raised money for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) before throwing his support behind Barack Obama.
Crowe said in an interview that he did not seek to work for Sudan but was convinced by Arnot and Kerry's office that a deal could be arranged that would move the country toward peace. He said the proposed agreement would require Sudan to take tangible steps for the relationship to continue, including allowing the return of humanitarian organizations to Darfur; allowing free and fair elections; and increasing cooperation with the United States on terrorism and other issues.
"We've been very, very careful in terms of our discussions with Sudan in terms of being able to help them," Crowe said. "We've been very specific on guidelines that they would have to meet."
Crowe declined to say how much the Sudanese regime would pay Nelson Mullins for its services. The last lobbyist to represent Sudan, Robert J. Cabelly of C/R International, had a $530,000 annual contract with the regime that ended in early 2006 amid an outcry in Congress.
Arnot said that providing Sudan a conduit for communicating with the United States could spur greater cooperation. "I know there's a lot of venom in Washington about Sudan, and I understand that," Arnot said. "But there was a feeling that we really need this to push things forward."
Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones said in a statement that the senator "has had no knowledge of Nelson Mullins' interest in representing Sudan." Jones said a staff member talked with Arnot about the need for Sudan to communicate with policymakers if the nation is intent on reform, but he said a different staffer later told Crowe that lobbying for Sudan "was a bad idea."
"While it's up to the Obama administration whether the Sudanese government can be represented in Washington, the administration should ensure that any representation is not simply to repair an image but to make concrete progress on the peace process and on the humanitarian situation," the statement said.
The level of support within Sudan for a lobbying deal is unclear. One senior official in the country's national unity government, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Gration's office repeatedly urged the country's ambassador in Washington to sign off on the proposed contract beginning in June, before a Washington summit of Sudanese leaders.
But the ambassador, Akec Khoc, declined to endorse the deal because he and others were not familiar with it, the official said. Khoc is a member of the Sudanese People Liberation's Movement, a rebel party that now governs the semiautonomous southern region of the country; Bashir's National Congress Party controls the north.
Crowe has talked to at least three Democratic House members from Massachusetts about his plans. Rep. Jim McGovern, who has been arrested during Darfur protests, told Crowe he was opposed to the idea, according to a spokesman. Another, Rep. Michael E. Capuano, said in a statement that his position "depends on why the government of Sudan hired a lobbyist."
"If it is to convince Congress that their past actions are acceptable, it won't work and I oppose," he said. "If it is to listen to Congress and change their ways, it could be good. I will wait and see."
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.