Lobbying for a Papal Contender

Posted April 18, 2005 at 6:51pm

As if lobbyists in Washington weren’t already busy enough with an energy bill, asbestos negotiations or appropriations earmarks, a couple of consultants have jumped into one matter taking place far away from the Beltway: the secretive election of the next pope.

Zina Pierre and Colin Wellenkamp of the Washington Linkage Group represent a Nigerian conglomerate owned by a Catholic family. This family wants to spread the word to the public and Members of Congress to promote Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who is considered a top contender for the papacy.

That’s making this week a busy one for the Linkage Group.

“Now I have to keep up with the Conclave and Congress,” said Wellenkamp.

Wellenkamp, a native of St. Louis, has helped his local Catholic parish win government grants. But this is a whole other level.

The longtime client is called the Anyiam-Osigwe Group. In addition to banking, mining and architecture, the company also runs a foundation. Officials hope that having a pope from that part of the world would promote economic prosperity and alleviate poverty and other social ills in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. The client pays Washington Linkage $250 an hour to represent it in Washington, D.C.

“The foundation has done charity work in 30 African nations,” Wellenkamp said. “Part of our charge is to look for angles to promote and make inroads to expand that work.”

Discussions of an African pope have created the perfect opportunity, Wellenkamp said.

Pierre, a special assistant for intergovernmental affairs under President Bill Clinton, first traveled to Nigeria and met the Osigwe family during a presidential trip in 2000.

“It is such a poverty-stricken place,” said Pierre, who is also a Baptist minister. “You see children, four or five years old, sleeping on the middle of a highway. I pray that we could create opportunities there.”

It’s an uphill effort.

The cardinals have “all been closed up. They’re not getting any access to news,” said Victor Nakas, executive director of public affairs for the Catholic University of America in D.C. “It’s like trying to influence a sequestered jury.”

Pierre acknowledged that “we have no influence over the next choice of the pope. We can’t influence anyone like we do in Congress. We’re just little people here.” Then again, she added, advances have come in unexpected ways. “Whoever thought blogging would have become such a powerful force?”

Wellenkamp holds out hope that his actions could possibly have an impact on the next pope. And he said his client has made “steps to reach out to the Vatican.”

But this week, the Vatican is a difficult place to reach. A press official who declined to give her name said the Vatican is observing a “moment of silence” but added that there is no way to influence the cardinals’ decision.

“It’s almost impossible to make the conclave immune,” Wellenkamp said. “I think at this point it’s a matter of faith. … When the next pope sees what is foremost on the world’s mind during the conclave, they will think of that when they craft an agenda. We want to make sure they don’t forget Africa and the Osigwe Group.”

A press release on behalf of the Anyiam-Osigwe group said the conglomerate “hopes to serve as a major domestic resource to Cardinal Arinze if he is elected Pope.”

Tony Smith, a partner at Schmeltzer, Aptaker and Shepard, works for the embassy of Honduras, which also has a high-profile papal candidate in Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga.

He said, “to our knowledge there’s no lobbying going on.”

The Rev. William Stetson, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., said it’s unlikely that the future pope would even be aware of news stories favoring the Nigerian cardinal after his selection.

“They will never know that anybody has written something favorable about one of their number,” he said. “The papal constitution says people outside the conclave should not attempt in any way to influence the outcome. It’s bad form.”

Pierre says Africa, in particular Nigeria, is ripe for investment and development because despite its reputation for corruption, it has abundant natural resources, including oil.

“Nigeria does have a stigma that you don’t want to do business there,” Pierre said. “When people think of Africa, all they think of is AIDS. We want to spotlight some of the richness that is there. [Arinze] as pope could connect these resources.”

Wellenkamp says the next pope could carry tremendous weight in the political scene, as did Pope John Paul II who came from Poland.

“When it came to Poland, the pope’s crusade against communism was one of the major elements that brought Poland out of the sphere of communism and oppression,” said Wellenkamp. “Africa could be brought out of the sphere of arms proliferation and famine.”