U.S.-Jamaica relations tested by lobbying dispute

By Dan Eggen
Friday, April 16, 2010

Last fall, the blue-chip law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips signed a $400,000 contract to lobby on behalf of the government of Jamaica, spending the next several months talking with White House and other administration officials about why the United States should not extradite an accused Kingston drug kingpin.

But the unusual arrangement has fallen apart amid a flurry of charges and countercharges that have reverberated from Kingston to Washington. The government of Jamaica contends that it never hired Manatt; the attorney who arranged the deal says it was all a big misunderstanding; and opposition leaders allege that Jamaica's prime minister was doing the bidding of a fugitive the United States wants to arrest.

Above it all hangs a question: If the government of Jamaica didn't pay Manatt, who did?

The controversy has rocked Jamaican politics and has further strained the Caribbean nation's relations with the Obama administration, which has grown increasingly frustrated in its attempts to bring the alleged drug dealer, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, to New York for trial. The country's prime minister, Bruce Golding, has led efforts to resist Coke's extradition, arguing that the efforts to bring him to this country are based on illegal drug and gun charges.

The dispute highlights the opaque world of international lobbying, in which governments, political parties and foreign companies hire well-connected U.S. lobbyists in an attempt to sway Washington policies to their advantage. The law firm at the center of the Jamaican case is headed by Charles T. Manatt, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who also represents the Dominican Republic, where he served as ambassador a decade ago.

It is not illegal for a foreign government to hire a private law firm to lobby in an extradition case, but it is highly unusual, according to U.S. officials and lobbying experts. Such diplomatic negotiations are usually handled through embassies, government ministries or other official channels, officials said.

Administration officials said they had no reason to believe that Manatt was representing anyone other than the Jamaican government. The Manatt firm, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, declined to comment, citing client confidentiality.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has labeled Coke, 41, one of the world's most dangerous narcotics traffickers, and he is suspected of playing a major role in supplying marijuana, cocaine and weapons to the East Coast of the United States, according to U.S. officials and court documents. Prosecutors say Coke's organization, called the "Shower Posse," operates from an impoverished area of west Kingston that is a stronghold of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party and is represented by Golding, the prime minister.

A State Department report on global narcotics trafficking released last month said that Jamaica "remains the Caribbean's largest source of marijuana for the United States" and that delays in extraditing Coke and other drug suspects "have called into question Kingston's commitment to law enforcement cooperation with the U.S."

According to Justice Department records filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Manatt signed the contract to represent the government of Jamaica on Oct. 1, about a month after Coke's indictment was unsealed.

The agreement, worth $100,000 per quarter to Manatt, was co-signed by lawyer Harold C.W. Brady of Kingston, a ruling party member. He was "authorized on behalf of the government of Jamaica" to make the deal, according to the contract.

Attorneys from Manatt had at least six contacts with Obama administration officials over the next three months, including one meeting that included a Jamaican minister and officials from the State and Justice departments, according to U.S. officials and documents. Those contacted by the law firm included John McShane, the White House intelligence officer for the Western Hemisphere, and Bisa Williams, a deputy assistant secretary of state who has since been nominated as ambassador to Niger, documents show.

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