Congo Republic's heavy use of D.C. lobbyists prompts questions

By Carol D. Leonnig
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 4:32 PM

Over the past five years, the authoritarian regime of the Congo Republic has leaned on Washington lobbyists to help with an image problem.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the president of the one of the world's poorest countries, had been accused in court and in lawsuits of diverting tens of millions of dollars in national oil profits to hidden bank accounts, then using the money to buy mansions in France and to finance spending sprees in Paris, Dubai and New York. His main antagonist was a New York investment firm that had accused him of misspending funds in a lawsuit seeking to to get paid on an old debt.

Sassou-Nguesso reached out for help on Capitol Hill. In 2006, the Congo Republic launched a Washington lobbying campaign that has now cost about $9 million and involved more than 100 conversations and meetings with members of Congress, their staffs and African advocacy groups, according to lobbying disclosure reports.

A main focus of the effort was to persuade Congress to stop the profitable business of investment funds like the one that had embarassed Sassou-Nguesso.

Experts on the Congo Republic and African debt say the lobbying effort financed by the small central African nation has been unusual in its cost and intensity. Impoverished countries struggling to provide food, water and medical care to citizens rarely pay out millions to retain the services of high-powered D.C. lobbyists.

The Congo Republic made clear that its legislative priorities included "responding to allegations of misconduct directed at President Sassou-Nguesso by creditors of the Republic of Congo," according to reports filed in Washington.

The Congo Republic's lobbyists took the lead among African nations in pushing for Congress to enact "vulture fund" legislation that would prevent foreign investors from reaping windfall profits by buying up at basement price the debts of poor countries and then suing the countries to repay in full. The Congo Republic, which settled most of its outstanding debts to investment firms in a confidential 2008 agreement, said it was seeking protection for all poor African countries, such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.

In the House, Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) stepped forward to sponsor a bill that won support from 33 co-sponsors, including many members of the Congressional Black Caucus. She introduced it 2008, and reintroduced it in 2009.

Waters told the British news media a year ago that she was unaware that the Sassou-Nguesso government had been involved in pushing the legislation. Last week, she acknowledged that lobbyists for the Congo Republic submitted proposed legislative language to her office in 2007 and met with her and her staff to shape the final bill. Records show that the Congo Republic's lobbying team has met or spoken with Waters's office 40 times since 2006, including two meetings with her personally.

Waters said the legislation is part of her long-standing effort to help impoverished African nations. She said the Congo Republic's lobbying against these investors, paid for by state oil revenue, may well be in the interest of the Congolese people.

"Poor countries have the same right to hire lobbyists and lawyers as more affluent countries," she said.

To groups supportive of the legislation, like TransAfrica and Jubilee USA, Waters and her colleagues are taking on a powerful segment of the financial industry and preserving scarce African resources for their people. Every year, African nations pay about $14 billion in debt costs to wealthy nations and international institutions while receiving less than $13 billion in international aid, advocacy groups estimate.

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