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Washington-Olympic medal winners routinely thank their coaches, their trainers and their families, but how often do they thank their lawyers? “We want to thank our legal team,” were the first public words by ice dancer Ben Agosto, who with partner Tanith Belbin had just won the silver medal, the first U.S. medal in ice dancing in 30 years during the Olympics in Turin, Italy, on Feb. 20. Without that legal team-led by Barney Skladany of the Washington office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and assisted by Paul Virtue of Washington’s Hogan & Hartson-Agosto and Belbin would have been forced to sit out their second Olympic competition in four years. Belbin, a native of Canada, had a citizenship problem. Although she and Agosto had skated for the United States 32 times in national and international competitions, only American citizens can be on the U.S. Olympic team. She came to Detroit to train with Agosto in 1999, earned her status as an alien of “extraordinary ability” in November 2000, and received her green card in early 2002. But she faced a five-year residency requirement, which meant she wasn’t eligible for citizenship until 2007. She and Agosto needed a miracle by Dec. 31, 2005, to make the U.S. Olympic team. Agosto turned to family member Jessica Weisel, counsel to Akin Gump’s Los Angeles office, who in turn went to the firm’s pro bono committee last spring. After examining the facts and the law, the committee concluded, as the old saying goes, “You’re going to have to pass a federal law,” recalled Skladany. Skladany, a government process attorney in the firm’s public policy practice, got the ice dancers to come to Washington to meet with him and Carl Levin, the Democratic U.S. senator from Michigan. A private bill After putting their heads together, Levin and Skladany realized that a private bill of relief would not pass. They needed a process argument, some flaw in the law that created a problem. What they discovered was that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had changed its internal rules on applying for extraordinary-ability status and green cards shortly after Belbin had filed. Both could be applied for simultaneously now, eliminating the two-year wait under the former rules. But Belbin and those like her could not take advantage of the new rules. Levin developed legislation that would give those in Belbin’s situation two years’ credit and reduce the residency requirement to three years, and it applied only to those who needed U.S. citizenship to participate in an international event. “We were always mindful there are many, many people with heartbreaking immigration stories as well,” said Skladany. “That’s why we stuck to a process flaw and tried to fix it. Whoever came in under that we were comfortable with.” They still faced the Dec. 31 deadline. Levin successfully attempted a fast track, attaching the provision to an appropriations bill that had to be passed by the end of the year. After enduring two joint conference committees of the House and Senate, the budget bill, with Levin’s language, passed and became law on Dec. 30. While Skladany worked Capitol Hill, Virtue, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner, paved the immigration trail, ensuring that all paperwork and requirements would be ready to go as soon as the bill became law. On Dec. 30, the lawyers and the two skaters were in Detroit for the final steps. On New Year’s Eve, a snowy Saturday, the “wonderful people from the immigration service,” Skladany said, came into work to finalize Belbin’s citizenship. “With all the stories told about the defects of government, it’s important to point out when government works,” said Skladany, who also credited Akin Gump’s Bill Paxon and Victor Fazio for “keeping us on track.” The work he did for Belbin and Agosto, said Skladany, was similar to what he does every day for corporate clients, but this case did have the added element of the Olympics. “It was quite nice to see that [the Olympics] still matters to people,” he added. “I really think it was a victory for the Olympic movement in the U.S. and for U.S. skating. And it was so gratifying to me to see something that we did directly change the lives of two wonderful, young people.” And the rest is Olympic history.

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