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

But John Clark, a professor at Florida International University and an expert on the Congo Republic, said members of Congress, including Waters, should be wary of lobbyists for Sassou-Nguesso and should scrutinize the country's "grotesque" record of neglecting its citizens.

"She has a duty not to take at face value that any benefit she gives to the Congolese state will go directly to the Congolese people," Clark said. "The purpose of the lobbying is to cover up this nasty reality of authoritarian politics and to protect the leadership's personal finances. The money of the state is spent on the elite and has little to do with the lives of ordinary people."

The trail of Congo Republic funds was exposed by Elliott Management, a New York hedge fund that sued the Congo Republic for repayment of an estimated $100 million in debt purchased on the secondary market. The company declined to discuss its dispute with the Congo Republic.

In 2005, the firm alleged in court that it found the Sassou-Nguesso regime had diverted tens of millions of dollars of state oil shipments into shell companies secretly owned by a top presidential deputy. (A British court agreed the country had concealed its oil assets in hidden accounts.) The Congo Republic's ambassador to the United States, Serge Mombouli, said embezzlement charges are unproved.

Other groups then alleged that Sassou-Nguesso used oil profits for his personal benefit. A lawsuit brought by French humanitarian organizations claimed that three African leaders, including Sassou-Nguesso, embezzled from their countries' treasuries for personal luxuries. A preliminary French police investigation in 2007 turned up $205 million in French property for the three, including Sassou-Nguesso family holdings of five mansions in or near Paris and a $224,492 car.

In a visit to France last year, Sassou-Nguesso said the assets were typical for a world leader.

"All the leaders of the world have castles and palaces in France, whether they are from the Gulf, Europe or Africa," he explained.

In 2006, the Congo Republic retained the D.C. law firm Trout Cacheris to handle several assignments, including working with the International Monetary Fund to win impoverished-nation status and dealing with charges made against Sassou-Nguesso. Trout Cacheris has turned to numerous subcontractors for help: the Livingston Group, run by former House speaker Bob Livingston; Chlopak Leonard; the former Amani Group, led by former representative Bill Gray; and the communications firm Public Private Solutions.

John Richards, the primary Congo Republic lobbyist who led several discussions on Capitol Hill about banning vulture funds, said Sassou-Nguesso properly sought to stop a creditor's campaign to disgrace and bankrupt the nation.

He said the investment firms "utilized their own in-house communications capacities and outside PR consultants to conduct a global smear campaign against the Congolese government."

Sassou-Nguesso, he said, wants legislation because, like a cancer survivor, he "knows firsthand that a cure is needed."

Lobbyists for the Congo Republic worked closely with Waters as well as a coalition of U.S.-based religious, human rights and environmental groups.

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