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AMERICA'S NEW WAR
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AMERICA'S NEW WAR

The White House connection: Saudi `agents' close Bush friends
by Maggie Mulvihill, Jonathan Wells and Jack Meyers

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

A powerful Washington, D.C., law firm with unusually close ties to the White House has earned hefty fees representing controversial Saudi billionaires as well as a Texas-based Islamic charity fingered last week as a terrorist front.

MORE ON: The Saudi Connection
  • Part One: U.S. ties to Saudi elite may be hurting war on terrorism
  • Saudis with U.S. oil tied to bin Laden
  • Part Two: Bush advisers cashed in on Saudi gravy train
  • The influential law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld has represented three wealthy Saudi businessmen - Khalid bin Mahfouz, Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi and Salah Idris - who have been scrutinized by U.S. authorities for possible involvement in financing Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.

    In addition, Akin, Gump currently represents the largest Islamic charity in the United States, Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in Richmond, Texas.

    Holy Land's assets were frozen by the Treasury Department last week as government investigators probe its ties to Hamas, the militant Palestinian group blamed for suicide attacks against Israelis.

    Partners at Akin, Gump include one of President Bush's closest Texas friends, James C. Langdon, and George R. Salem, a Bush fund-raiser who chaired his 2000 campaign's outreach to Arab-Americans.

    Another longtime partner is Barnett A. ``Sandy'' Kress, the former Dallas School Board president who Bush appointed in January to work for the White House as an ``unpaid consultant'' on education reform.

    In September, a federal grand jury issued subpoenas for Holy Land records around the same time terrorist investigators froze the assets of a North Texas Internet firm hired by Holy Land.

    Holy Land shared office space with that firm, InfoCom Corp., which was raided by police on Sept. 5, just days before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

    Holy Land has denied any link to Hamas.

    According to Akin, Gump, the firm represents Holy Land in a federal lawsuit filed against the charity and another suspected Hamas entity by the parents of a man allegedly murdered by Hamas operatives in the Middle East.

    In a statement issued Friday, Akin, Gump said it decided last week to decline a request to represent Holy Land in its defense of terrorism-related charges made by the U.S. Treasury Department.

    Akin, Gump, which maintains an affiliate office in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, is also a registered foreign agent for the kingdom. It was paid $77,328 in lobbying fees by the Saudis during the first six months of 2000, public records show.

    In addition to the royal family, the firm's Saudi clients have included bin Mahfouz, who hired Akin, Gump when he was indicted in the BCCI banking scandal in the early 1990s. In 1999, the Saudi's placed bin Mahfouz under house arrest after reportedly discovering that the bank he controlled, National Commercial Bank in Saudi Aabia, funneled millions to charities believed to be serving as bin Laden fronts.

    A bin Mahfouz business partner, Al-Amoudi, was also represented by Akin, Gump. When it was reported in 1999 that U.S. authorities were also investigating Al-Amoudi's Capitol Trust Bank, Akin, Gump released a statement on behalf of their client denying any connections to terrorism. One year earlier, the firm had co-sponsored an investment conference in Ethiopia with Al-Amoudi.

    Akin, Gump partner and Bush fund-raiser Salem led the legal team that defended Idris, a banking protege of bin Mahfouz and the owner of El-Shifa, the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant destroyed by U.S. cruise missiles in August 1998.

    cw-2 The plant was targeted days after terrorists - allegedly on the orders of bin Laden - bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. The U.S. Treasury Department also froze $24 million of Idris' assets, but Akin, Gump filed a lawsuit and the government later chose to release the money rather than go to court. Idris, who insists he has no connection whatsoever to bin Laden or terrorism, is now pursuing a second lawsuit with different attorneys seeking $50 million in damages from the United States.

    Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan political watchdog group, said Akin, Gump's willingness to represent Saudi power-brokers probed for links to terrorism presents a unique ethical concern since partners at the firm are so close to the president.

    The concern is more acute now, Lewis said, because Bush has faced stiff resistance from the kingdom in his repeated requests to freeze suspected terrorist bank accounts.

    ``The conduct of the Saudis is just unacceptable by international standards, especially if they are supposed to be one of our closest allies,'' Lewis said.

    Speaking of Akin, Gump partner Kress' office in the White House, Lewis added: ``That's not appropriate and frankly it's potentially troublesome because there is a real possibility of a conflict of interest. Basically you have a partner for Akin, Gump . . . inside the hen house.''

    But another longtime Washington political observer, Vincent Cannistraro, the former chief of counter-intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency, said the political influence a firm like Akin, Gump has is precisely why clients like the Saudis hire them.

    ``These are cozy political relationships . . . If you have a problem in Washington, there are only a few firms to go to and Akin, Gump is one of them,'' Cannistraro said.

    Cannistraro pointed out that Idris hired Akin, Gump during the Clinton presidency, when Clinton confidante Vernon Jordan was a partner at the firm. ``He hired them because Vernon Jordan had influence . . . that's a normal political exercise where you are buying influence,'' he said.

    Akin, Gump is not the only politically wired Washington business cashing in on the Saudi connection.

    Burson-Marsteller, a major D.C. public relations firm, registered with the U.S. government as a foreign agent for the Saudi embassy within weeks of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

    One of Burson-Marsteller's first public relations efforts for the Saudis was to run a large advertisement in the New York Times reading: ``We Stand with You, America.''

    The Washington chairman for Burson-Marsteller, which also maintains an office in Saudi Arabia, is Craig Veith, who ran communications for the Republican Party in the 1996 elections.

    Other GOP heavyweights who have held top positions at the PR giant include Sheila Tate, the campaign press secretary for the elder George Bush; Leslie Goodman, deputy director of communications for the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign; Craig L. Fuller, chairman of the 1992 Republican National Convention and elder Bush's vice presidential chief-of-staff.

     

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