Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner sued the government of Gabon on Wednesday seeking more than $1.25 million in unpaid legal fees, an amount that an arbitration panel awarded to the international law firm last month for its work promoting closer diplomatic ties between the coastal African country and the United States.
The law firm registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department after taking on the Gabonese Republic as a client in 2016. Under the terms of its contract with Gabon, disclosed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Bryan Cave was owed $1.38 million for its work fostering a deeper relationship between the two governments.
“Our relationship is one of mutual trust. We encourage you to inquire about any matter relating to our engagement, including fees and expenses,” Bryan Cave lawyers wrote in the engagement letter. “We appreciate the confidence you have placed in us and we look forward to working with you.”
Two years later, more than $1.25 million remained unpaid, Bryan Cave claimed Wednesday in a five-page brief filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “Despite demand for payment, this sum remained unpaid,” wrote Rodney Page, a senior counsel in the firm’s Washington office who focuses on corporate and commercial litigation and arbitration.
A representative from the Gabonese embassy in Washington was not immediately reached for comment.
In July 2018, Bryan Cave lawyers asked an arbitration panel in Washington to resolve the fee dispute. That panel, the Attorney Client Arbitration Board of the District of Columbia Bar, heard arguments in April, with Bryan Cave presenting witnesses and documents. A pair of lawyers for the African country’s government participated by telephone from France and Gabon, cross-examining the law firm’s witnesses and mounting defenses, according to the court papers.
The panel awarded $1.25 million—about $100,000 less than the law firm sought—and directed the Gabonese government to pay the amount by May 3. The Gabonese government, Page wrote, “ignored the terms and has not paid any amount of the fees and expenses owed to [Bryan Cave] under the decision and award.”
Within days of receiving the arbitration panel’s decision, Bryan Cave formally ended its representation of Gabon and later notified the U.S. Justice Department office tasked with handling disclosures under FARA.
The law firm had notified the Justice Department in a prior disclosure that it was “actively seeking to obtain payment in full” from Gabon. In January, Bryan Cave said “no new payments were received from Gabon” in the previous six months, “and notably not since May 26, 2016.”
Bryan Cave’s work for Gabon was initially led by Miguel Rodriguez, at the time a partner in the firm’s public policy and government affairs practice, along with policy advisers David Russell and Matt Jessee. Rodriguez left the firm in 2017 to become senior vice president for government affairs at the Center for American Progress.
Clare Chmiel, a senior government affairs analyst at Bryan Cave, and Joseph Smallhoover, a Paris-based partner at the firm, joined Gabon’s lobbying team in January 2017.
In their disclosures to the Justice Department, the Bryan Cave lawyers said they would “provide government relations counsel to raise awareness among members of Congress and administration officials regarding the Gabonese Republic’s concerns and issues on various issues.”
Bryan Cave and the U.K.’s Berwin Leighton Paisner merged in 2018 to create a 1,600-lawyer firm that is among the 50 largest in the world. Bryan Cave lawyers have advocated for other foreign clients, including the Republic of Palau, Kuwait and the Secretariat of Commerce and Industrial Development of Mexico, according to Justice Department filings.
Bryan Cave’s suit is posted below: