When the government of El Salvador wanted help extending immigration benefits to its citizens in the U.S., it turned to a new lobbying shop set up by Miami lawyer Alberto Cardenas Jr., a star of the Republican fundraising machine.
The lobbyists were confident that “a round of consultations and meetings” with Bush administration officials would get El Salvador what it wanted: an additional 18 months of protection and work permits for Salvadorans living in the U.S.
In less than two weeks, El Salvador got just that.
Foreign governments have played the Washington influence game for years, paying large fees to lobbyists, especially those with connections to the White House. Those connections often have stemmed from past government service, either in elective or appointive positions. But now, the growing cadre of fundraisers in presidential politics are increasingly influential players for countries seeking to improve their access to Washington’s corridors of power.
In June, for example, Iraq’s Kurdish Democratic Party hired a Washington lobbying firm to help keep it in good standing with the administration. The company -- Barbour, Griffith and Rogers -- promotes its access to the White House in its written appeals for foreign business, saying it knows “decision-makers and the decision-making process.”
One of its partners, Larry Griffith, is a top fundraiser for President Bush, as had been the firm’s founder, Haley Barbour, now the governor of Mississippi and no longer active with the company.
The trend of foreign countries relying on lobbyists who also serve as political fundraisers troubles government watchdog groups. Issues such as trade and immigration drive U.S. foreign policy, they say, and should not be influenced by those with fundraising links to decision makers.
“One of the things this shows is that foreign governments that used to work country to country now believe they have to function through the Washington influence money system in order to be heard in Washington,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group. “And that’s an extremely damaging comment on the way influence is bought and sold in Washington these days.”
When Cardenas opened an international lobbying firm in Washington, he didn’t have to sell his political credentials -- which include state GOP chairman in Florida in 2000 -- or his fundraising prowess on Bush’s behalf. The five Latin American and Caribbean governments that signed on with the Tew Cardenas firm knew it already.
“Everyone I’ve talked to was familiar with my involvement in the president’s campaign in Florida,” said Cardenas, recently named cochairman of this year’s Bush campaign in the state. “Obviously, my political involvement over the years provided us with the access we needed.”
Among GOP fundraisers, he was the first person to reach “Super Ranger” status this year, meaning he raised at least $500,000 for Bush’s campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Cardenas is one of 17 of the president’s top fundraisers who lobby the White House and executive branch on behalf of other nations, based on a Times review of foreign agent registrations at the Justice Department compared with a list of Bush fundraisers who are lawyers and lobbyists.
When the 2002 campaign finance law banned unlimited donations to national political parties, a new premium was placed on the ability of individuals such as Cardenas who could raise large amounts of money by collecting dozens -- and in some cases hundreds -- of individual checks.
The foreign lobbying contracts at the Justice Department showed that fundraiser-lobbyists frequently cited their access to the administration as a selling point for would-be clients.
The Bush campaign said it made sure that all its fundraisers who lobbied the executive branch met “the highest ethical standards” and complied with “all the rules and regulations.”
“There is no preferential treatment given to anyone. Every American has access to the administration,” said Steve Schmidt, deputy communications director.
But some fundraisers who are personal friends and confidants of Bush or other high-ranking administration officials appear to enjoy especially easy access.
Consider Thomas G. Loeffler, a former congressman from Texas. He was the top moneyman for Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign in Texas, and aggressively collected money for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. This year, he raised more than $200,000 for the reelection effort.
When Saudi Arabia contacted his lobbying firm, seeking some face time with Bush officials about trade and the war on terrorism, Loeffler obliged. In July 2003, he introduced the Saudi minister of commerce and industry to U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a fellow Texan who led the Bush fundraising team in 2000.
Later that month, Loeffler arranged a private meeting between Adel Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy advisor in Washington, and Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political advisor, “to discuss Saudi trade matters” and “the kingdom’s reform efforts and war against terrorism,” records state.
Loeffler also set up a meeting for Saudi Arabia’s minister of commerce with Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, and Linnet Deily, the U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization, which Saudi Arabia is trying to join.
Loeffler did not return several phone messages seeking comment.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Mexico have hired Loeffler’s firm to push their interests in Washington. All three have paid the firm about $2.6 million a year.
Each of them is concerned about trade. And the Saudis want to improve their image in the U.S. in the wake of Sept. 11. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
Other fundraisers for Bush have seen their foreign lobbying business grow significantly.
From 1997 until Bush won the presidency, the firm run by Griffith and founded by Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman, represented just one foreign government -- Switzerland.
Since Bush took office, Macedonia, Mexico, Bolivia and Honduras have signed on as clients.
Influence magazine, a trade publication for lobbyists, recently reported that lobbying on behalf of foreign governments in Washington was at an all-time high. The magazine cited trade opportunities and Bush’s creation of the Millennium Challenge Account in 2002, which gives aid as an incentive for countries to meet certain human rights and economic policy criteria.
The business of lobbying for foreign governments -- whose agendas may be contrary to U.S. interests -- is different from pleading for the special interests of a private company. Congress began requiring strict disclosure requirements for such lobbyists in 1938, amid fears of German propaganda agents in the U.S. before World War II broke out.
Schmidt, the spokesman for the president’s reelection campaign, said fundraisers who collected money for Bush did so “because they share his agenda.”
But some of the clients who have paid hefty fees to Bush fundraisers who also serve as lobbyists are not U.S. allies.
The Southeast Asia military regime of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, paid $340,800 in 2002 to the DCI group, whose chief lobbyist, Charles Francis, was a Bush fundraiser in 2000 and is a friend of the president.
DCI is owned in part by Thomas J. Synhorst, a GOP strategist whose consulting firm has been paid more than $3.1 million this year by the Bush campaign. In hiring a lobbyist, Myanmar was hoping to begin a “dialogue on political reconciliation” with the U.S., according to Justice Department records.
Francis met with officials from the Defense Department and the National Security Council on Myanmar’s behalf. And the firm helped set up a high-level meeting at the State Department for some Myanmar military officials -- the first time Myanmar officials had met with U.S. officials at that level since 1988.
But the lobbying was to no avail. Myanmar ended its contract with DCI in January 2003, and seven months later Bush imposed tough new sanctions on the country, banning all of its exports to the U.S.
“Oh, Lord,” Francis said when asked for comment. He declined to discuss specifics of the lobbying deal.
Some Bush fundraisers who also have lobbied on behalf of foreign governments say their fundraising has nothing to do with their client list.
Longtime Republican strategist Charles R. Black Jr., chairman of BKSH and Associates, has been representing foreign countries in Washington for decades. He and his wife raised about $100,000 for Bush this election cycle.
He said his clients were unaware of his fundraising.
“They are looking for firms that have bipartisan experience to advocate their case before the executive branch and Congress on both sides of the aisle,” Black said. “In my case, I’m not much of a fundraiser, but raised money for this president due to personal friendship and support for his policies.”
Three top fundraisers for Sen. John F. Kerry have also represented foreign governments in the last four years. But because the White House and Congress are under GOP control, the Democratic lobbyists get considerably less business from other countries.
The Kerry campaign said the Massachusetts senator had not taken a position on whether his fundraisers should be allowed to lobby the executive branch on behalf of foreign governments if he were elected.
Times staff writer Richard Rainey contributed to this report.