A fired Senate intelligence committee aide said yesterday that powerful Washington lobbyists representing foreign businesses are attempting to undermine legislation that would require U.S. officials to designate foreign "drug kingpins" and freeze their holdings in the United States.
The aide, Jim Stinebower, who helped draft the drug-trafficking bill, said he was fired 13 days ago at the behest of Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, for refusing to back changes sought by business interests in Mexico and Aruba. Several Republican sources also said Shelby's insistence on amendments had led to the firing of Stinebower, the panel's chief drug analyst.
Stinebower's concerns were echoed by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) Tuesday in debate on the House floor. "Sadly, we have discovered in this Congress that we are not insulated from efforts of the kingpins to buy influence and corrupt our political institutions," McCollum said. "Their narco-lobbyists were paid well to try to shape and gut this bill through this process. Well, they have not succeeded, fortunately."
McCollum's comments came minutes before the House overwhelmingly passed the measure, 385 to 26, and sent it to the Senate, where its fate remains uncertain.
The House legislation, backed by the Clinton administration, would require the U.S. government to compile an annual list of suspected drug kingpins, similar to the list kept of terrorist organizations. The government could then freeze their U.S. assets, bar their entry to the United States and prohibit American businesses from dealing with them.
The Senate passed a similar measure in August as part of the fiscal 2000 intelligence authorization, which is now in a House-Senate conference committee. Shelby, who wants to amend that bill, denied that he has been influenced by lobbyists in any way. Shelby said through an aide that he is only trying to protect U.S. businesses from being unfairly sanctioned in the event one of their foreign partners is designated as a drug kingpin under the legislation.
Shelby's aide said the senator wants a provision added to the bill in conference committee stating that U.S. companies would have an automatic right to judicial review if their assets were seized following the drug kingpin designation of one of their foreign partners.
"The concern that we've had from the beginning--and it's not a slight one, it's a real one--is that U.S. companies could get caught up in this thing," said the Shelby aide, who asked not to be quoted by name. "Senator Shelby supports this legislation, but he just wants to find a way to protect U.S. business and the due process of U.S. persons."
The aide also denied that Stinebower's dismissal was related in any way to his work on the bill.
Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, a major Washington law firm, began an intensive lobbying effort to amend the legislation on behalf of Transportacion Maritima Mexicana (TMM) after the Senate in August unanimously passed an earlier version of what is now called the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.
John A. Merrigan, a Verner, Liipfert partner, said TMM remains concerned about the legislation after a June report by the National Drug Intelligence Center that he said falsely accused the giant shipping conglomerate of involvement in drug trafficking. The report was based on intelligence gathered by the CIA, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs.
If such a "false, libelous and defamatory" charge were leveled against TMM with the drug kingpin legislation in effect, Merrigan said, the company and its U.S. joint venture partners could have their assets frozen by the Treasury Department without notice and without the right to review by the courts.
"We feel very comfortable for our law firm's sake that we're not representing drug traffickers and that our [proposed amendments] make good sense and are very modest," Merrigan said.
Another major D.C. law firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, recently began lobbying on behalf of Glossco Freezone, an Aruba business controlled by the Mansur family, some of whose members have been indicted in the United States on charges of conspiracy to launder drug trafficking proceeds, congressional sources said.
Barney J. Skladany Jr., the Akin, Gump partner representing Glossco, did not return repeated telephone calls for comment.
Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and other members of the Senate GOP leadership may try to go around Shelby and the conference committee and vote directly on the House-passed version, according to GOP staff members.
"We have a version that protects American business--the House version," said one high-ranking Republican staff member. "Anything beyond this is changing the intent of the bill."
CAPTION: Jim Stinebower helped draft the anti-drug measure for Senate panel. Its chairman wants amendments, as do lobbyists for foreign businesses.