One of the new directors of the Riggs National Bank is a prominent Washington lawyer who serves as a registered lobbyist for the South African government.
James Symington, a former four-term congressman from Missouri, was appointed last month as one of six new members to the bank's 22-member board of directors. The bank is a subsidiary of the Riggs National Corp., which has a separate board.
Since 1980, Symington's law firm -- Smathers, Symington & Herlong -- has received a retainer of $300,000 a year to represent the interests of the South African government in the United States, according to records on file at the Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration office. Symington is a registered lobbyist for the South African government. The law firm is one of several organizations that have been retained to represent South Africa.
Riggs was the target of protests several years ago because of its investments in South Africa and Chile. However, the bank now has no investments in South Africa, according to an affidavit on file with the city government.
Nonetheless, a number of local anti-apartheid groups say they are considering protests against the bank as a result of Symington's appointment.
Symington has played a personal role in lobbying against legislation on Capitol Hill to impose sanctions against the South Africans and is probably that country's best known representative here, according to some critics of the South African government.
These critics said it was particularly inappropriate for Riggs, the largest bank in a city that is 70 percent black, to name a South African lobbyist to its board, potentially giving him a voice in shaping the bank's policies.
"Mr. Symington is an extension of South African interests in the United States," said Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, an anti-apartheid lobbying group and a major force in the "Free South Africa Movement" that has been coordinating the protests at the South African Embassy.
Robinson said his group has been considering extending its anti-apartheid picketing campaign to banks that have loans to South Africa. Although Riggs has publicly declared that it currently has no such loans, Robinson said the Free South Africa Movement will make the bank a "candidate" for protests as a result of the Symington appointment.
Last Aug. 17, in response to a new D.C. law barring city investments in financial institutions that have South African loans, Riggs Senior Vice President Davis E. Bunting Jr. submitted a sworn affidavit to the D.C. controller's office stating the bank has no loans to the governments of South Africa or Namibia, or to any company organized under the laws of South Africa.
Nonetheless, Robinson said he was "very, very disturbed" about the Symington appointment. "I don't believe Riggs was unmindful of his Symington's close association with the South African government. They should have to accept responsibility for that."
Symington, 57, did not respond to three phone calls from The Washington Post last week. A former administrative aide to then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, Symington was long regarded as a liberal Democrat and is still said to maintain close ties to the Democratic Party. But he has rarely publicly discussed his work for the South Africans. A member of Symington's law firm recently said there is a "firm policy" against discussing any of its clients with the press.
When first asked about Symington's relationship with the South Africans, Riggs spokesman George Beveridge said last week that "this is the first I've heard about this." He later called back a reporter to say the bank would have "no comment" on the Symington appointment. "I'm not going to get into that at all," Beveridge said.
Janet Jakobsen, network organizer of the Washington Office on Africa, another anti-apartheid lobbying group, said that organization and others also were discussing action against Riggs over the appointment. The appointment of Symington to the Riggs board might indirectly give South African officials a partial influence over bank loan policy, she contended. "It's a visible tie and a public statement that they are still connected with the government of South Africa," Jakobsen said.
The furor over the Symington appointment comes at a time when large banks are coming under increasing scrutiny for their loan policies involving South Africa, which has been the center of controversy because of its policy of racial segregation known as apartheid.
In the late 1970s, Riggs was the target of a protest campaign by an ad hoc group called the DC Bank Campaign partly because of bank loans to the governments of South Africa and Chile. According to an internal Riggs document released by campaign leaders, Riggs had a $7.5 million loan to South Africa at the time. Beveridge said it was Riggs policy not to discuss its relations with any clients. But Beveridge said that any outstanding South African loans in which Riggs had participated had expired almost a year ago.
At least 13 banks and financial institutions, including such local banks as American Security, National Bank of Washington, United National Bank of Washington and Independence Federal Savings & Loan, in addition to Riggs, submitted affidavits to the city affirming that they have no involvement with South Africa or South African companies.
As a result of these affidavits, the city has not had to change any of the financial institutions with which it makes short-term investments, according to Assistant City Treasurer Fred Williams. To comply with another part of the law, however, the D.C. Retirement Board by last Sept. 30 had divested itself of $34.9 million of the $46.9 million in stocks and bonds it held in U.S. companies that do business in South Africa, according to the most recent figures available.
Whether the Symington appointment would have any impact on the city's relationship with Riggs was unclear last week. D.C. Retirement Board officials said last week that Riggs was under contract with the board to manage a $28 million bond portfolio that by law must be free of any companies that do business in South Africa.
Bonnie Cohen, chairman of the retirement board's investment committee, said she was unaware of the Symington appointment but added, "I'm sure this will be of interest to us." D.C. Council Member John Ray (D-At Large), who sponsored the D.C. divestment law, said he was "extremely disappointed" over the appointment of Symington, particularly in light of Symington's law firm's role in lobbying against divestment legislation such as the one the District passed. "This shows a tremendous amount of contempt for the principles we believe in," Ray said.