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For Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, the shortest route back to the center of the action in Washington, D.C., may be via Kabul. The law and lobbying firm, a one-time D.C. powerhouse that has recently undergone a wrenching restructuring, has been retained by the interim government of war-torn Afghanistan to lobby the U.S. government, according to lawyers at the firm. With President George W. Bush in an April 17 speech calling for a Marshall Plan-like initiative to rebuild that country, Verner Liipfert’s new client assumes even greater significance at the Capitol. Defense contractors, telecommunications companies, and water and power plant developers are all keenly aware that Bush’s proposal could translate into major contracts for projects in the former redoubt of al Qaeda. Of course, the plan could also translate into billions of dollars in aid for Verner’s client. “If the [Bush] administration puts real money into it, there will be those who see great opportunities there and will pursue them,” says Latham & Watkins partner John Sachs, who heads up his firm’s D.C. project finance practice. Verner Liipfert won Afghanistan as a client in early March, after making several overtures to its embassy, firm lawyers say. Management resolved to perform the work on a pro bono basis. “With U.S. soldiers on the ground, we decided it was the right thing to do,” says chief executive Peter Pantaleo. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a special counsel at Verner Liipfert, has played a “broad, strategic” role in the firm’s work for the Afghan government, says one firm lawyer, and has met with Ambassador-designate Ishaq Sharyar. Verner Liipfert chairman and former Sen. George Mitchell has been “extremely supportive,” but not closely involved. Verner Liipfert’s effort is being led by partners Brenda Meister and Lawrence Levinson, aides to former Presidents George Bush and Lyndon Johnson, respectively. Meister also represents the government of India, a client since 1998. Richard Garon, a Verner Liipfert senior adviser and former chief of staff of the House Committee on International Relations, has been involved as well, along with Marshall Harris, a foreign policy expert who served as an aide to then-Secretary of State James Baker. Verner Liipfert professionals met as recently as two weeks ago with “administration officials” in the White House and the State Department, Meister says. They’ve also met several times with staffers and members of Congress and, as Meister puts it, they’ve faced “zero obstacles.” Verner Liipfert’s goals: land humanitarian aid, reconstruction funds, a “security umbrella,” and help build a viable democratic government, Levinson says. Bush’s speech appears to push the United States in that direction, but Meister dismisses any suggestion that the firm persuaded the White House to adopt the state-building policy. “We did not specifically ask the president to stake this out,” she says. “I wish we could take credit for that.”

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