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For more than two years, Washington lobbyist John Aycoth was paid to make Gambia look good. But a dispute over $500,000 Aycoth says the government owes him has transformed the one-time spokesman of this tiny West African nation into one of its biggest critics. During a four-day bench trial last week before Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, testimony from Aycoth, his business partners, and two Gambian officials offered a rare glimpse into how one lobbyist tried to remake the image of an unpopular world leader and how their relationship fell apart. Though impoverished countries like Gambia have ambassadors and envoys in the United States, many hire Beltway insiders in hopes of fast-tracking their nations into a better and more lucrative relationship with Washington. But such work is a high-stakes business that comes with certain financial and personal risks. Payment delays are common, if not expected, among lobbyists working for African nations. And clients come and go at the whim of unstable politics and leaders. The dangers are clear, and Aycoth surely knew that. His work for the Democratic Republic of Congo ended in 2001 when its president was assassinated. Aycoth’s dealings with Gambia spun out of control, and when he sought legal recourse he was left fearing for his life. Gambia fired Aycoth in September 2002, halfway through his second contract. Within months his lawyers, David Super, E. Barrett Atwood, and Jeffrey Bauer of Baker Botts, filed suit, alleging that Gambia owed Aycoth $500,000 — half of his two-year contract — because the agreement had no termination clause. Gambia had already paid Aycoth $500,000 for his first contract and the same amount for the first half of the second contract. Gambia’s attorneys, Thomas Queen and Lyzka DeLaCruz, contend that the nation was allowed to break the contract early because Aycoth wasn’t meeting the terms of the deal, even though no benchmarks were outlined in the contract. Gambia gained traction in its case in 2003, when Queen discovered that Aycoth’s company, EAW Group Inc., had lost its D.C. charter in 1996. The oversight, Queen contends, makes Aycoth’s entire representation invalid. Aycoth says he had no clue about the revocation. Then, after Gambian President Yahya Jammeh visited Washington in June 2004, Aycoth says he began receiving “numerous death threats” from unknown callers, who told him to drop his lawsuit. But he persisted. And last week when Aycoth took the witness stand, he freely described the lavish spending and overt bribery he encountered with many of the top officials of Gambia, a country best known as the center of the 18th-century slave trade portrayed in Alex Haley’s book Roots. “It was a nightmare,” Aycoth said on the witness stand. Even if Aycoth wins his case, he may have trouble forcing the government to pay him. But Aycoth says he’s confident he and his lawyers will find a way.
Republic of the Gambia
President: Yahya JammehPopulation: 1.5 millionCapital: BanjulArea: 11,295 square kilometers (slightly bigger than Jamaica). The smallest country on the African continental mainland, it is bordered to the north, east, and south by Senegal and has a small coastline onto the Atlantic Ocean in the west.Main exports: It has few natural resources; therefore it is heavily dependent on peanut crops, fish, cotton lint, and palm kernels. (Only 1/6 of the land is arable.)Annual per capita income: U.S. $330 Jammeh’s government has been criticized by international rights groups for its attitude toward civil liberties, especially freedom of the press. Jammeh came to power in 1994 when a bloodless military coup ousted the elected president, Dawda Jawara, who had led the country since its independence from Britain on Feb. 18, 1965. — Jonathan Emden
Sources: Republic of the Gambia official Web site, U.S. State Department

CUTTING A DEAL Aycoth, 50, is not a major player in Africa lobbying, but he was no rookie in representing foreign governments when he took on the contract with Gambia. Raised in North Carolina, he started working for foreign governments after serving in the 1980 Ronald Reagan presidential campaign as a liaison for the business community and used that experience to start a public relations company. Though Aycoth got his start with corporate clients such as the upscale car manufacturer Aston Martin, he began drawing work from the government of the central African country of Gabon. For a brief time he joined the lobby firm then known as Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, where he was introduced to representatives of countries such as Angola and the Dominican Republic. In the late 1980s, Aycoth set out on his own again, developing business with other countries, including Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malaysia, Taiwan, Ukraine, and Georgia. So Aycoth had some idea what he was getting into when his friend Paul Morgan, a London banker, called to see if he had any interest in Gambia, whose president, a former military official, overthrew one of Africa’s longest-standing democratic leaders in a bloodless coup in 1994. “My profession is to solve countries’ problems, to help them find a path to improve themselves,” Aycoth testified last week. “So I felt I could help.” Soon, President Jammeh gave Aycoth a call. Aycoth made his pitch: He’d launch a public relations campaign, introduce new businesses to the country, and cultivate better relationships with U.S. government officials. The cost: $500,000 for one year, paid upfront — a steep price for a country with an annual per capita income of little more than $330. “The only way I’ve found you can be paid is if you get paid first,” Aycoth said. Aycoth certainly had his work cut out for him. Gambia, a former British colony, has little industry aside from tourism. It is consistently given unfavorable marks by human rights groups and scores high on public corruption indexes. Those groups have pointed to the high level of sex trafficking in Gambia, which prompted the Justice Department to fund efforts to curb the trade. International observers said that Gambia’s 1996 election was not free and fair. And after Jammeh’s 1994 coup, the Clinton administration slapped economic and political sanctions on the country. Despite Aycoth’s price, Jammeh was sold. “They say you are very aggressive with what you do, and that’s what I need,” Aycoth testified the president told him. Jammeh gave Aycoth his private line and cell phone number and asked Aycoth to prepare a contract. The Gambian Embassy’s account at Riggs Bank in Washington had $250,000 ready to send, Jammeh told Aycoth. The rest would follow. But there was a hitch, one that would later seem like an ominous sign. To bring Aycoth on board, Jammeh intended to fire his current lobbyist, Edward von Kloberg III, an eclectic and flamboyant man who represented some of the world’s most notorious dictators until his suicide last year. Aycoth told Jammeh such a move would be a deal breaker. “If you cut the contract he’ll cause me more problems,” Aycoth said he told Jammeh. The president relented and agreed to pay the $140,000 left in von Kloberg’s contract. Aycoth thought the issue was over. Jammeh made good on the payments, and over Memorial Day 2000, Aycoth boarded a plane for his first trip to Gambia. He checked into the Coconut Residence Hotel, but instead of heading directly to see the president, Aycoth took a daylong detour to neighboring Senegal, where he met with a holy man the president had requested he visit. The man held his hand and through a translator probed him about his work. After receiving a blessing, Aycoth drove straight to the president’s ranch, where he and Jammeh spoke for about three hours. This face to face was a chance to size up the man who would become his single largest client for the next two years. Jammeh wanted to focus on business development most. He didn’t want to do telephone interviews. He didn’t want to deal with the Clinton administration. And, Aycoth said, Jammeh didn’t want to deal with paperwork. Back at the Coconut one night, Aycoth described a call from the front-desk clerk, saying that a man named Amadou Samba was in the lobby to meet him. U.S. State Department officials had warned Aycoth about Samba when Aycoth took on Gambia as a client, and here he was. Nonetheless, Aycoth headed downstairs. The first words out of Samba’s mouth were, “I understand you know who I am,” according to Aycoth’s testimony. Samba told Aycoth he knew he would be bringing companies to Africa and wanted to make sure Aycoth knew to make him a partner in all of the deals. “You understand how it works here; I represent the president,” Samba said. Aycoth replied, “You have to understand who I work for in this country, and it is not you.” SELLING GAMBIA Aycoth’s first big test came in September 2000, during the U.N. Millennium Summit in New York. Jammeh attended, and Aycoth lined up politicians and business leaders to meet with the president, including Henry Kissinger and Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.), then both members of the House subcommittee on Africa. He arranged a phone call with Condoleezza Rice, who then was George W. Bush’s campaign adviser for national security. During the call, Jammeh promised his support, making him one of the few African leaders to back Bush. Aycoth even persuaded Jammeh to sit down with a representative of Human Rights Watch, despite the country’s poor record on human rights. “The president got political capital out of it back home,” Aycoth said. But arranging political meet-and-greets was only part of Aycoth’s tasks. Over the next year, Aycoth introduced a half-dozen new businesses to Gambia, including a telecommunications group, an aircraft maker, and a flour-mill company. One of the largest deals was a proposal to overhaul a fuel depot near the capital that Shell Oil Co. built in the 1940s. The facility was decrepit and environmentally unsound and had forced Gambia to import all of its petrol. In the late 1990s, Aycoth’s friend South African banker Bruce Jewels had explored a project to overhaul the site and turn it into an export plant, which he believed would cut down fuel costs for Gambia by at least 30 percent. But the idea made little headway. Aycoth’s newfound relationship with Jammeh prompted Jewels and his team of engineers to give the $23 million project, called Gamfuel, another shot. In August 2000, Aycoth organized the first trip to Gambia, during which Jewels and his partners met with Jammeh and other government ministers. The president, Jewels testified, gave the project a nod. The finance minister directed Jewels to lower-level deputies to work out the details and assured him that the $200,000-plus payment for a feasibility study would be on its way. As Jewels and Aycoth described it, that’s when the trouble began. The Gambian official who had access to key financial data the team needed for the project wanted $50,000 for it. Jewels testified he knew the official was asking for a bribe. He said he declined the offer and reported it to Gambian authorities, but was subsequently shut out from further communication with the government. Though the feasibility study continued, it took more than a year and a half to get paid, Jewels said. And then the government never moved their project forward. Finance Minister Famara Jatta remembered the situation differently. In court he denied there had been any bribe. And he said the government eventually shelved the project because it did not offer enough ownership for the Gambian government, called for lower tariffs, and would hurt local consumers. To Aycoth, the end of the Gamfuel deal was one example of a pattern of bribery and unresponsiveness among Gambian officials. To Jatta and Gambian U.N. Ambassador Crispin Grey-Johnson, the project was symptomatic of the problem with Aycoth’s business ideas — namely that the terms were always unfavorable to the government. And, they testified, Gambia had been able to find other, more favorable suitors for many of those projects, including the one to remake the fuel depot. “We are a poor country,” Grey-Johnson said. “We need to protect our customers and give easy access to what a modern man needs.” CONTRACT WOES Though Aycoth says the president gave him reassurances of contract renewal, dissent was already brewing, including from Jatta. Aycoth’s first-year contract expired without a new one having been signed. He continued to work, but a month later, he received a letter from Jatta saying the country no longer needed his services. But when Aycoth called then-Washington Ambassador John Bojang, he was assured that the contract situation would be resolved. So Aycoth continued to work for Gambia. When the first lady, Zyneb Jammeh, came to Washington in July 2001, the first contract still had not been renewed. The first lady urged her husband to renew it. He concurred, and in a phone conversation with Aycoth, Aycoth testified, the president offered him an even sweeter deal than before: a two-year contract for $1 million. During Aycoth’s next visit to Gambia, over Labor Day, Jatta came by Aycoth’s room at the Coconut Hotel to sign the contract. He had one change: to push the second $500,000 payment, scheduled for Dec. 15, back two months, to February. Aycoth agreed. He testified he called the president to confirm the request. Jatta said the phone call to the president never occurred. Regardless, the payment never arrived. Days before it was due, Jatta sent Aycoth a letter saying the government would be two weeks late on the next payment because it was waiting for Qatar to transfer funds. Aycoth says he wasn’t worried. But as the months dragged on, the excuses grew bolder and less believable, Aycoth said, particularly during Jammeh’s visit to the United States in May 2002 for the U.N. Summit on Children. Aycoth had arranged visits with members of Congress and the media, but when Jammeh arrived, he said he was no longer interested. Instead, Jammeh took out a check for $800,000 and asked Aycoth to cash it. “It took me aback,” Aycoth said. It wasn’t the first time Aycoth had procured items for Jammeh. He’s been sent an additional $1 million over the past two years to buy Jammeh everything from trucks to furniture to a $100,000 armored BMW. But this time it felt different. “Here they owed me $500,000,” Aycoth testified. But the lobbyist did what he was told. Jammeh then asked Aycoth for an array of catalogs and sent him on a shopping spree to purchase more than $300,000 in goods from stores including FAO Schwartz, Tourneau NY Inc., and the Sharper Image. Jammeh gave Aycoth cash to purchase the items and told him to ship them to his hotel room. Just after the president headed to the airport, Ambassador Bojang came to his room and said, “I think it’s awful what they are doing to you,” according to Aycoth’s testimony. Aycoth said that Bojang then told him of a plot against him by a few Gambian officials, including Amadou Samba, who had been cut out of attempted business deals. They planned to spread a rumor that Aycoth was having an affair with the president’s wife. In a conservative and largely Muslim country, any hint of such behavior, even if baseless, meant a death sentence, Aycoth said. Grey-Johnson testified he’d never heard that rumor and believed it would have been seen as “laughable” in Gambia. Still, in June 2002, Aycoth made his final trip with the Gamfuel team. The tension over the money was becoming palpable. It wasn’t only the cash but his reputation that was at stake. It was also the last time he spoke with the president. After that visit his phone calls to Jammeh’s private line were not put through. And Jammeh’s cell phone number stopped working. Then Aycoth received a fax, dated Sept. 23, 2002, terminating his contract, in which “sincere appreciation” for “invaluable services” was expressed. Inside the courtroom last week, as Gambian officials repeated their belief that Aycoth had done little for their country, those words on the fax, like Aycoth’s one-time affection for Gambia, seemed to be relics. It remains to be seen if Kessler will agree. She told both sides to expect a decision soon.

Emma Schwartz can be contacted [email protected].

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