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The PR papers; watching a Washington lobbyist con a would-be client.

This Washington branch of a Minneapolis law firm has over the years boasted a top-tier client list, from Coca Cola to Westinghouse. But Third World regimes are an especially lucrative sort of client, bringing in annual fees ranging from $100,000 to $1 million. (Hill and Knowlton got $10 million for its Kuwait-related account.) What do these countries think they're paying for? Good publicity, comfy trade agreements, and their fair share of U.S. foreign aid--plus the access that makes those windfalls happen.

But before the country--or the lobbyists--get rich, O'Connor & Hannan (O&H) has to create the need and fuel the greed. Hence this "pitch" letter, with its message and context decoded.

A spring proposal gives corporations and countries plenty of time to award contracts before summer vacations and the onset of the next fiscal year.

A consultant with ties to the Venezuelan government.

A former director of the Peace Corps under Nixon, Joseph Blatchford has since specialized in image-repair on Capitol Hill for Bolivia, Ecuador, and the right-wing El Salvadoran government of Alfredo "Freddy" Cristiani--governments not known for special delicacy in questioning dissidents, but that have been capable of surprising tenderness toward the corrup and the drug-monied.

Venezuela, with its reputation for corruption and periodic human rights abuses, is a perfect candidate for the Blatchford approach. With its relatively democratic government and healthy--if inequitable--economy, Venezuela was able to reap a little more than $1 million in U.S. aid last year, mostly for anti-narcotic efforts. Blatchford's challenge here: convincing the Venezuelans that he can ehlp them get even more.

Nobody in Washington cares about your obscure president.

But Blatchford does.

Your current lobbyists--such as Arnold and Porter--are doing a lousy job.

O&H lobbyists are big-shots. "A lot of statements by senators are written by our people right here on this table," said Blatchford recently, pointing to a glass table in his plush office.

O&H can make you rich from foreign investments. But be prepared to take the heat. Blatchford fails to mention that his work for El Salvador, which brought in $10,000 a month, generated so much negative publicity that the city of Minneapolis voted in December 1989 to sever ties with the law firm, costing the firm $500,000 in fees.

O&H can make your president famous in Washington and introduce him to people like Len Downie, George Will, and William Safire. Why should President Arias of Costa Rica be the only Latin American leader with good press and a Nobel Prize?

The more famous President Perez becomes, the more money your country gets.

Both Republicans and Democrats will vote to give your country more money and trade preferences. (As he drops names, Blatchford makes sure to touch all the political bases.)

Japanese executives are smart people, and they pay O&H big bucks. So should Venezuela.

O&H will work hard on the Hill for the money. But what Blatchford doesn't mention is that O&H's efforts on behalf of El Salvador, perhaps its most visible foreign client, aren't well regarded by several Hill aides, even those sympathetic to the Cristiani government. "His firm just doesn't do a good job," one conservative Hill staffer says of Blatchford. "If they're paying him a nickel, it's too much."

O&H has its finger on the pulse of the Hill. But that doesn't necessarily lead to political savvy. In 1990, a congressional aide recalls, Blatchford's lobbying team made a wrong-headed effort to enlist the support of the late Massachusetts Rep. Silvio conte, then the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, in fighting efforts to reduce El Salvadoran military aid. The problem with this approach was that Conte was a liberal Catholic totally outraged by the killing in November 1989 of six Jesuit priests. After receiving the recruiting call from O&H, a shocked Conte aide asked a Hill colleague, "Are they kidding?"

O&H is plugged into the Washington power circuit. Unfortunately, that still doesn't help Blatchford and his crew provide consistently accurate political information to their clients. Last year, before an important vote regarding El Salvadoran military aid, he boasted, "We've got everything in line," and in a strategy memo picked a number of moderate Democrats, like Al Gore, as "best bets" to support the El Salvadoran government. None of them ended up voting as O&H expected. The pro-military proposal--to table an anti-military amendment by Senator Chris Dodd--lost 56 to 43, although Blatchford projected a winning majority of 52 votes.

Hiring O&H means no tariffs and more markets for your country's products.

Thet'll get President Perez on "Nightline"--or at least "This Week with David Brinkley." Blatchford isn't quite the media sophisticate he purports to be, however. He accidentally gave this reporter a copy of this memo along with a pile of background papers on El Salvador.

Blatchford will make sure rich Venezuelans will meet congressmen who will help them get U.S. contracts and trade benefits.

Blatchford's firm will subsidize South American junkets for legislators and write speeches for these sunburned congressmen that will be inserted in the Congressional Record and that no one will read.

Blatchford is attempting to con his would-be client into believing that the media and Congress will breathlessly follow such "news events" as "rescheduling debt." Actually, there have to be hundreds of natives--or one American nun--slain on the streets before American opinion-makers become interested in Latin America, and even then, their interest is fleeting. Venezuela did, ultimately, win minor attention this year, when a military coup, fueled by anger over corruption and economic suffering, nearly toppled President Perez.

O&H makes so much money that its employees can jet away to luxury beaches whenever they want. By the way, Ernesto, since you and Blatchford are now buddies, you might want to come along.

O&H will help bring tourist dollars to your out-of-the-way country.

Blatchford writes speeches for presidents and ambassadors. He can do it for Perez, too.

In the end, Venezuela wasn't convinced by Blatchford's blandishments. According to Justice Department records, its current lobbyists are Arnold & Porter; Collier, Shannon & Scott; and Squier, Eskew, and Knapp Communications. Better luck next time, Joe.

Art Levine is a contributor to Spy and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.
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Title Annotation:public relations
Author:Levine, Art
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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