As reported last week in The Hill and also by an overseas blogger at an E.U. hearing in Brussels, DLA Piper is lobbying on behalf of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his Ethiopian government on Capitol Hill. For a minimum of $50,000 a month, DLA Piper lobbyists are urging Congress not to sanction the country for human rights violations. It's a bold move, given that Zenawi's violent crackdown on protesters following contested national elections in 2005 was strongly condemned by human rights advocates.
Although the United States has maintained good relations with the Ethiopian government, deeming it an ally in its war on terror, the Department of State in 2006 reported that Ethiopian security forces shot and killed 187 people, wounded 765, and arrested and detained opposition leaders, human rights advocates and journalists. The State Department's report last year suggested the situation had not improved, noting that the government's human rights violations included:
Unlawful killings, and beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of those suspected of sympathizing with or being members of the opposition or insurgent groups; detention of thousands without charge and lengthy pre-trial detention; infringement on citizens' privacy rights and frequent refusal to follow the law regarding search warrants; use of excessive force by security services in an internal conflict and counterinsurgency operations; restrictions on freedom of the press; arrest, detention and harassment of journalists for publishing articles critical of the government...
A bill pending in Congress -- the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 -- would withhold $1.5 million in military aid and place other sanctions on Ethiopia until the government agreed to take specific steps to improve its human rights record. DLA Piper partner Dick Armey, a former House majority leader, together with partner Gary Klein are among the lead lawyers working on Ethiopia's behalf to defeat the bill. The bill passed in the House last October and has been strongly promoted by human rights groups. According to The Hill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet taken up the bill.
That may be why some Ethiopians are increasingly expressing outrage at DLA Piper for trying to kill the legislation. Kinfu Assefa, an exiled Ethiopian journalist and editor of the Ethiopian Media Forum, was on hand last week when DLA Piper appeared at an E.U. hearing in Brussels on behalf of the Ethiopian government to defend the country’s human rights situation.
In his post on Nazret.com's Merkato blog -- which identifies itself as "the largest Ethiopian news and information service online" -- Assefa recounted an exchange between the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa and the DLA lawyer:
"You were doing everything to kill HR 2003," Dr. Berhanu [the mayor of Addis Ababa and a leader in the opposition party] responded to the lobbyist. "You earn money by defending a corrupt and criminal regime at the expense of the misery of millions of the Ethiopian poor."
DLA Piper spokesman Jason Costa said that the firm's partners were all at a global retreat off the coast of Spain and could not be reached for comment. The firm did provide the following statement: "The firm is assisting Ethiopia in strengthening bilateral relations with the U.S., including assisting Ethiopian capacity-building efforts, expanding trade and investment opportunities, building relationships with Congress, and enhancing relationships with financial, academic, and public policy institutions."
In documents filed with the Department of Justice in May 2006 in which its fee arrangement is disclosed, the firm says that it will provide "legal advice and counsel on a broad range of legislative, regulatory, legal matters and public relations needs."
Interestingly, as The American Lawyer will be reporting in more detail, DLA Piper also is assisting Ethiopia on a pro bono basis with its law school in Addis Ababa. Working with a Northwestern University law professor, DLA sent several partners and associates this past spring to teach two-week courses in business negotiations, international corporate dealmaking and international arbitration. It fell to the Northwestern professor to teach international human rights law.
Asked if he knew that DLA was also helping Ethiopia try to kill the human rights bill, DLA partner Sheldon Krantz, who directs the firm's nonprofit arm, New Perimeter, said he was unaware that the firm represented the Ethiopian government before he agreed to take on the Addis Ababa Law School project in mid-2007. That's not wholly implausible, given that DLA has more than 3,700 lawyers in 25 countries. Then again, the firm's lobbying for the Ethiopian government had been reported on by Legal Times in November 2006 and by the International Herald Tribune in October 2007.
"We were not aware of that when we decided to take on this project," says Krantz. "But our view is that New Perimeter was going to take on the law school as a client separate and apart from the firm's work with the government. Whether there is an issue or not, our view is that this is the right time to help this law school."