Stuck with a shipload of rice that got caught in the economic embargo against Iraq, a New Jersey trading company moved to solve its problem in a typically American way.
It hired two heavyweight Washington law firms to lobby its case and came up with an original idea: sell the 27,000 tons of rice to the government, which could ship it to Jordan to feed the hundreds of thousands of refugees stranded in desert camps there.
The company even got Jordanian Ambassador Hussein A. Hammami to present the idea officially in a letter sent last week to Undersecretary of State Robert M. Kimmitt. "Diverting this shipment ... to Jordan will provide an important source of food for the refugees in a relatively short period of time," Hammami wrote. He promised to provide guarantees that the rice would not be sent on to its original destination, Iraq, which normally gets most of its food supplies through Jordan's port of Aqaba.
Despite its major lobbying effort, Westway Merkuria Corp. of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., is still stuck with $12 million worth of rice stuffed into the hold of a ship anchored in the Mississippi River off New Orleans.
"I think this is unfair," said Westway Merkuria Vice President Lee Cameron.
One of his lawyers, Bart Fisher of the high-powered firm of Patton Boggs and Blow, was even more direct. "The State Department and the Department of Agriculture are not doing their jobs," he said.
Lawyers at the other firm -- Anderson, Hibey, Nauheim & Blair, which has close ties to the Agriculture Department -- were equally angry but would only speak on background. "We are at an impasse with the rice here while there is an obvious need in Jordan," one said.
Adding insult to injury as far as Cameron is concerned, the Agriculture Department asked for bids for about 20,000 tons of rice to be shipped to Jordan. The government rejected Westway Merkuria's rice, which could be in Jordan in three weeks, and instead awarded the bid to suppliers who can't get the rice to Jordan before November.
Agriculture Department officials, as annoyed with Westway Merkuria's Washington lawyers as the lawyers are with them, said surveys in Jordan show no immediate need for rice there. "The problem is one of delivery" to the refugee camps, not shortages, one official said.
Further, agricultural officials said the specifications set by the Agency for International Development, which administers food-aid programs, called for bagged rice. Westway Merkuria's rice is in bulk.
One irked official noted that another trading company caught in the same bind as Westway Merkuria simply unloaded its ship and sold the commodities elsewhere without hiring Washington law firms or asking the government for help.