It was hardly a client lunch at the Palm.
In the mid 1990s, Democratic lobbyist Lanny Davis found himself halfway around the world, surrounded by Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, her Cabinet ministers and military brass, who wanted the United States to fork over more than $400 million worth of fighter jets being held in the Arizona desert amid national security concerns.
Bhutto hired Davis to help her retrieve the planes — or the money. President Bill Clinton’s onetime personal lawyer suggested that Bhutto file a court action against the U.S. government.
“She looked at me, very quietly and said, ‘Mr. Davis, so you’re recommending that I sue your friend Bill Clinton?’” Davis recalled recently.
Davis ultimately got Pakistan’s money back. More than decade later, Davis now says he’s again diving head-first into the lucrative business of representing foreign governments, signing up Equatorial Guinea in April and Honduras last week. According to Justice Department records filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the African nation pays Davis’ firm more than $1 million a year plus expenses to represent “His Excellency President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo ... on matters of importance to [his] country.”
In an interview with Roll Call, Davis said the WikiLeaks era in Washington, D.C., will mean boom time for his new communications and political strategy shop, Davis-Block, which he recently started with former American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesman Josh Block.
“We’re looking at that as a potential new way to represent foreign governments, not in the traditional lobbying role but more communications strategies,” Davis said. “In the world of the Internet, where media is no longer confined to a particular location around the world — it’s a global event the minute it goes viral — I think there is now a greater need for foreign governments that want a relationship with the United States ... to be much more media and politically sensitive in Washington.”
In April, Davis also opened a new law firm, Lanny J. Davis & Associates. Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, announced on Nov. 19 that she was joining his new legal operation.
Davis’ predictions of an uptick in FARA-related lobbying works would be a marked turnaround from new data released by the Sunlight Foundation.
The organization released a study this month showing that overall lobbying on behalf of foreign governments was down nearly 30 percent during the most recent year.
“In 2009, lobbying, public relations and other firms that represent some 328 clients —foreign governments, political parties and government-controlled entities including some for-profit corporations—reported receiving more than $60 million in fees—down by about $25 million from the total in the previous year,” a Sunlight Foundation blog entry posted Thursday reads.
A Republican lobbyist agreed that many firms are banking on foreign governments to come knocking in the coming months, but said “it is not everyone’s cup of tea.”
The source said foreign leaders are looking in particular for advice on possible commercial investments, trade deals, government-run health care matters and human rights issues. “We believe it is a potential growth area,” the source told Roll Call.
But it’s not without its pitfalls, Davis and other K Street consultants warned. Foreign governments are notorious for not paying their bills, and lobbyists must contend with the potentially destructive epitaph “foreign agent.”
“Some people have a real visceral reaction to that,” a downtown GOP source said. “From a perception issue, it depends on what countries you’re representing ... if you’re representing G-20 countries, it’s usually not a big deal.”
Tony Blankley, a public relations consultant who was also a spokesman for former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said he refuses to work on behalf of foreign governments. But the former Washington Times editor, who was born in London, wrote in an e-mail that his opposition is for professional reasons, rather than ideological ones.
“Every person makes their own decisions — and I do not question them. I know many fine, patriotic and honorable people who represent foreign governments in different capacities,” he wrote. “For me, both for personal reasons and because as a writer and commentator who frequently comments on foreign policy (and wrote two books on the subject), I do not want to limit or undermine my commentary by having any professional or economic interest in the well being of any country other than the USA.”
Unlike when he represented Pakistan more than a decade ago, Davis said his legal and consulting clients pay him regular retainers rather than hourly rates these days. He also said that he’s attempting to avoid the “difficulty” of getting foreign governments to pay their bills by demanding cash on the barrel before he starts dispensing advice.
“You need to be paid most of the fee up front — I’m trying to do that with every client,” Davis laughed.