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Boehner’s Panama Connections

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Last December, House Minority Leader John Boehner led a Congressional delegation to Panama, an event that marked a kind of reunion for his former staff members who worked together in the House Republican Conference office in the late 1990s.

The four-day trip was built around an agenda of talks on free trade and drug trafficking, but it also served as an opportunity for the Ohio Republican and his chief of staff, Paula Nowakowski, to reconnect socially with Barry Jackson, his previous chief of staff who also was in Panama at the time on a personal trip. In addition, the Boehner party was greeted in Panama by someone they knew well: Demetrio Papadimitriu, a former Boehner staffer widely known as Jimmy, who is the top aide to Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.

Nowakowski, Jackson and Papadimitriu worked together on the staff of the House Republican Conference in the late 1990s when Boehner was the Conference chairman. Boehner was recently elected Speaker for the 112th Congress.

Boehner’s office wouldn’t release the itinerary or details of the cost of the trip, though other Members who went issued press releases touting the “fact-finding mission” as a useful visit with a democratic ally in need of a new trade agreement. Indeed, the free-trade issue is a significant one for Panama, which hired a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm to help the country sharpen its messaging strategy.

The firm it hired, also in late 2009, is HDMK, the communications shop of Terry Holt and Chad Kolton, two more alumni of Boehner’s Conference staff. HDMK doesn’t lobby Congress on behalf of Panama, but it does represent the country’s interests in the U.S. and this spring got an opinion piece written by the Panamanian president advocating a trade agreement placed in a Capitol Hill newspaper.

HDMK filed forms with the Justice Department earlier this year indicating that the firm began representing Panama in the U.S. in January, but Holt told Roll Call the relationship began a few months earlier.

Holt said he visited Panama in June 2009 and “discussed at that time helping Panama reshape its image,” and in October 2009 “we were brought on formally to advise the ministry and the president” on “public statements, speeches and communications.”

Holt said Papadimitriu hired HDMK “because of our long-standing relationship” and the firm’s ability to do the communications outreach the government was seeking in the U.S.

Papadimitriu now holds the Cabinet-level position of minister of the presidency, essentially the equivalent of a White House chief of staff.

Roll Call’s request to Martinelli’s press office for an interview with Papadimitriu was denied.

“We have been unable to include the requested interview in his agenda,” the press office replied. “Please feel free to contact Terry Holt of HDMK, who handles public relations in Washington for the Panamanian government.”

Holt said Papadimitriu was the driving force behind the December Boehner CODEL.

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