Former U.S. congressman James W. Symington yesterday resigned from the board of directors of Riggs National Bank in the wake of protests over his role as a registered lobbyist for the South African government.
Symington, now a Washington lawyer, was one of six directors recently appointed to the 22-member board of Riggs bank, the subsidiary of the Riggs National Corp., by its chairman, Joe L. Allbritton.
But following a story in yesterday's Washington Post about Symington's appointment and his connections with the South African government, Riggs spokesman George Beveridge issued a one-sentence statement announcing that Allbritton had "received and accepted" Symington's resignation from the board, effective immediately.
Beveridge declined to say yesterday whether Symington offered to resign or Allbritton asked him to step down. Symington could not be reached for comment yesterday, but his secretary, Cindy Large, said his letter of resignation was "absolutely not" requested by Allbritton.
The abrupt resignation follows sharp criticism from anti-apartheid groups, some of which had threatened to launch a protest campaign against Riggs over the Symington appointment even though bank officials submitted a sworn affadavit to the D.C. government last year stating that it had no outstanding loans to South Africa.
In addition, D.C. Council member John Ray (D-At Large), in a hand-delivered letter to Allbritton, yesterday denounced the Symington appointment as a "flagrant insult to the people of Washington." Noting that more than $560 million in city tax revenue flows through Riggs accounts annually, Ray also called on D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to sever the city's financial ties with Riggs unless Symington was removed from the board.
Barry said yesterday he was "pleased" about Symington's resignation, adding that "it would not serve the city's interest" to have a board member of Riggs, the largest bank in the city, who represented the South African government.
"This is an important victory for the anti-apartheid movement," added Jean Sindab, executive director of the Washington Office on Africa, one of the lobbying groups that has been active in the recent anti-South African protests in the District. "It shows that the movement is intensifying and the other side is beginning to feel the pressure."
According to records on file at the Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Office, Symington has been a registered lobbyist for South Africa since 1980. His law firm, Smathers, Symington & Herlong, has received an annual retainer of $300,000 under a contract that calls for the firm to work to "strengthen . . . the longstanding friendship" between South Africa and the United States, to assist South African officials in "arranging contacts" with members of the U.S. government and other opinion leaders, and "to confer with representatives of the U.S. corporate community on ways of improving economic relations between the two countries."
Symington, 57, did not return three phone calls last week from a Washington Post reporter. But he was quoted by the Associated Press yesterday as saying that he personally opposes South African racial policies and that he has worked against racial discrimination in his public life, including his service as an administrative assistant to former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy.
The former four-term congressman from Missouri added, however, that he believes that continued diplomatic and economic relations with the South Africans are the best tools for bringing about change in that country's racial policy. He said his law firm only took the South African account because it concluded that the government in Pretoria was liberalizing its policies.
"None of us in the law firm were anxious to promote the status quo of that country in any way," Symington was quoted as saying.