Originally: Aristide government spent millions on U.S. lobbyists, report shows

WASHINGTON – (KRT) – The Haitian government spent almost $5 million on lobbyists and lawyers, including a Miami attorney, since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to power in 2000, according to reports filed with the Justice Department.

Aristide’s critics have called such expenditures exorbitant for the hemisphere’s poorest nation. But the use of $1.2 million in U.S. taxpayer funds to help Aristide’s opposition is also receiving scrutiny.

The twin controversies illustrate the gulf that exists between the allies and foes of Aristide, who resigned and left Haiti Feb. 29. How the money was spent on both sides of the divide has sparked a debate marked by rancor and suspicion.

Ira Kurzban’s Miami law firm earned $3 million from the Aristide government for legal work since 2000, according to the Justice Department records. Other lobbying shops reported earnings of $1.8 million to put Aristide’s case before U.S. government officials, diplomats from other countries and the media.

Kurzban said those activities were needed to deal with “the reality that Aristide had become a political football between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. We had to address that.”

Firms in Sterling Heights attorneys for family law matters stated that much of the money for legal representation paid for efforts to recover assets hidden overseas by the Duvalier family that once ruled Haiti and to build cases against human rights abusers.

The Justice Department records showed part of the money also went to lobby for unfreezing U.S. aid to the Aristide government, cut off after disputed elections in 2000.

Some Haiti experts question that level of spending. Robert Maguire, who directs the Haiti program at Trinity College in Washington, said some small countries pay for lobbyists to get better access in Washington when they should beef up their embassies instead.

“Hiring people who get a paycheck to make your case limits your credibility,” Maguire said. “Building up an embassy with professional diplomats … is more effective.”

For the most recent six-month reporting period ending in June 2003, Aristide’s government spent at least $945,227 for legal work and lobbying. In contrast, the neighboring Dominican Republic spent a mere $171,000.

Haiti also hired an Oakland, Fla., firm that includes former Rep. Ron Dellums, once a powerful member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a Washington shop headed by Hazel Ross-Robinson. Her husband, Randall Robinson, founded the advocacy group TransAfrica. Also paid was the powerhouse Washington firm of Patton Boggs.

On the other side of the political fence, the GOP-linked International Republican Institute used $1.2 million it received from the U.S. Agency for International Development to arrange “party building” seminars for members of the Haitian opposition in the Dominican Republic and Miami.

Like its Democratic counterpart, the IRI is a nonprofit group that tries to promote democracy with training sessions for political parties, labor unions and civic groups. It has programs in more than 50 nations.

But Democratic critics, led by Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, have complained that IRI staffers with ties to Haiti’s former military rulers worked with the opposition to undermine the Aristide government.

Maguire and Alex Dupuy, a Haiti expert at Wesleyan University, said the close relationship between U.S. officials and the opposition’s umbrella Democratic Convergence emboldened it to refuse to share power with Aristide as a bloody revolt in February spread through Haiti.

“In a sense, the U.S. bought their allegiance by pampering them,” Maguire said. He added that the opposition may have received messages from friends in Washington to hold out and not negotiate with Aristide.

IRI officials say their efforts in Haiti mirrored work in other countries, have been above-board and will stand up to any congressional scrutiny.

“In all our work with the opposition we’ve always emphasized in sessions that you can’t just be anti-Aristide,” said IRI spokesman Thayer Scott. “The whole idea is to build democratic institutions.”

Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, the administration’s point man on Latin America, told a Senate committee last week that IRI Vice President Georges Fauriol “spent numerous phone calls with opposition leaders trying to convince them to join in this power-sharing deal.”

With the departure of Aristide, his backers and the IRI now share one thing in common–uncertainty over future finances.

Kurzban said he recently received a letter from Haiti’s Central Bank informing him that the government had canceled his contract. “My question is, who is the government?” he said.

And the IRI isn’t sure what role it will have as various factions and parties vie for power in Haiti, Scott said.