Paul Manafort: Fall of US fixer who cleaned up leaders’ image

Sunday November 5 2017

Paul Manafort

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort leaves the Prettyman Federal Courthouse following a hearing November 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Manafort and his former business partner Richard Gates both pleaded not guilty Monday to a 12-charge indictment. PHOTO | CHIP SOMODEVILLA | AFP 

By KIPCHUMBA SOME
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At the height of his fame and power Mr Paul Manafort, the disgraced former campaign manager of US President Donald Trump, shuttled between continents in the service of some of the world’s leaders, including Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi.

Mr Manafort, 68, was this week indicted on 12 counts by a special federal prosecutor looking into possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and the Russian government in America’s November 2016 election.

The accomplished political consultant and his long-time business partner Rick Gates were charged in a court in Washington DC with money laundering, tax evasion and acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government.

HUMAN RIGHTS
The indictment marks a spectacular fall for a man who made a global reputation and fortune lobbying in the halls of Congress for regimes across the world accused of corruption and human rights abuses against their own people through his politically influential firm Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly.

“Over the years, they made millions by representing a rogue’s gallery of clients far away from DC’s genteel corridors of power: dictators, guerrilla groups, and despots with no regard for human rights — including one man responsible for mass amputations, and another who oversaw state-sanctioned rape,” the Daily Beast wrote.

In 1991, the US, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suspended aid to Kenya to force President Moi to fight corruption and carry out political reforms.

LOBBYING

The Americans were also not impressed by the Kenyan president’s harsh crackdown on opposition leaders.

Things were looking bleak until Mr Manafort came to President Moi’s rescue.

The lobbyist went to work in Washington and US aid was restored and even increased to more than $38 million (about Sh3.8 billion today) in 1993.

In a recent personal account, K Riva Levinson, president and CEO of KRL International, a strategy consultancy, recalled her time as Mr Manafort’s employee early in her career before leaving 22 years ago after she questioned uncomfortable aspects of her job.

MORALS

Her boss at the time, she said, “lacked a moral compass” and “working for him nearly broke my spirit”.

“The late ’80s was a time of global upheaval. Following Ronald Reagan’s presidency, we were in an era of proxy wars and freedom fighters.

"The Soviet Union was beginning to teeter. So foreign governments and other political interests were willing to pay us millions of dollars to ensure they were properly allied with the United States.

"And we did it all: We organised congressional delegations and advocacy trips to members’ districts, coordinated head-of-state visits to Washington, handled font-page media placements, prepared white papers. Whatever it took,” she wrote.

ZAIRE
Kenya’s was just one of the slick operations Mr Manafort and his firm ran.

Before the re-introduction of multiparty politics the Kanu government was notorious for cracking down on political dissent, including detention without trial and operating torture chambers at Nyayo House in Nairobi.

Mr Manafort also worked for Mobutu Sese Seko, the President of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), who was once described by Britain’s The Guardian newspaper as “one of Africa’s most flamboyantly corrupt leaders”.

A United Nations official also once told the Chicago Tribune that “Zaire has the worst human rights record in Africa”.

PUBLIC RELATIONS
However, in 1989, for a sum of $1 million (Sh100 million) a year, dictator Mobutu retained the services of Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly to clean the president’s and the country’s image in the US.

And through Mr Manafort’s efforts, Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (popularly known as Unita), was transformed in American eyes from a ruthless warlord who, among other things forcibly recruited child soldiers, into someone viewed as a much misunderstood valiant fighter against Soviet communism.

“What the firm achieved was quickly dubbed ‘Savimbi chic’,” reported Time magazine in 1986.

“Doors swung open all over town for the guerrilla leader, who was dapperly attired in a Nehru suit and ferried about in a stretch limousine.”

CIVIL WAR
In her article, Ms Levinson said she was deployed on September 1992 as Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly’s sole representative during Angola’s first-ever democratic election.

The elections went horribly wrong after it became clear Unita was losing to the government side and the country returned to a brutal civil war.

Ms Levinson had to flee back to the US as hundreds were killed, including her friends, in the aftermath of the electoral fallout.

“I was traumatised, depressed, almost in mourning. Worse, I felt responsible. Our efforts might have contributed to the misery inflicted on the Angolan people.

"As for Manafort — well, there was no self-reflection. It was simple: We lost a client,” Ms Levinson said.

SANI ABACHA
In 1998, Nigeria’s military dictator Sani Abacha approached Mr Manafort’s firm to improve his reputation after he became an international pariah for the excesses of his short-lived regime.

The New York Times wrote that at the time of Gen Abacha’s excesses, Mr Manafort “was engaged in an aggressive public relations and lobbying campaign to persuade Americans that he (Abacha) was the leader of a progressive emerging democracy”, while knowing very well that the opposite was true.

Mr Manafort also once sent Ms Levinson and Mr John Donaldson to Somalia to seek a $1 million contract to help clean up the image of dictator Siad Barre, who was eventually overthrown in 1991.

“Our assignment would be to clean up Barre’s international reputation, which needed plenty of soap,” Ms Levinson said, noting that various reports had named President Barre as one of the most brutal dictators.

MOGADISHU
When she asked Mr Manafort if he really wanted the Somali dictator as a client, the response was curt: “We all know Barre is a bad guy, Riva. We just have to make sure he’s our bad guy. Have a great trip.”

After landing in Mogadishu, Ms Levinson and her colleague had to leave immediately since Mogadishu, the capital, had been encircled by rebels out to overthrow the president.

Internationally, another notable client of Mr Manafort was Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos — deposed in 1986 — who was named by Transparency International among the top 10 worst dictators.

Kenya and other developing countries often turn to PR firms and lobbyists in America and other Western countries to improve their image abroad.

JUBILEE GOVT

While most of the lobbying is important in giving a voice to the agenda of such countries, there has been criticism on the choice of clients.

Since 2013, the Jubilee government has used the services of various firms for various lobbying work in the US.

In June, for example, the Jubilee administration agreed to pay a US lobbying firm a total of $300,000 (Sh30 million) for three months’ work to help protect Kenya’s preferential trade terms under the African Growth and Opportunity Act programme.

That firm, the Sonoran Policy Group, also has links to the Trump presidential campaign.

TRUMP CAMPAIGN

The group’s head, Stuart Jolly, served as field director for Mr Trump’s White House campaign.

Mr Jacob Daniels, the firm’s vice president of public policy, worked on Mr Trump’s presidential inauguration committee.

In 2015, the Kenyatta administration retained one of Washington’s best-known persuasion specialists to conduct a $135,000 (Sh13.5 million), three-month initiative to prevent Kenya from losing US aid due to what the State Department had described as the country’s inadequate efforts to combat sex trafficking.

That work performed by Squire Patton Boggs, an especially powerful lobbying firm, may have played a role in Kenya’s subsequent success in avoiding US penalties for perceived shortcomings in the fight against sex trafficking.

NASA
The Kenyan government also spent more than $2 million (Sh200 million) earlier this decade for image-enhancement efforts carried out jointly by the Washington firms CLS & Associates and the Moffett Group.

The Sunday Nation has also learnt that Opposition figures have also retained US lobbyists to help gain hearings in Washington for their criticisms of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s performance.

Recently filed US Justice Department documents show that the Nairobi law firm headed by Paul Mwangi, Mr Raila Odinga’s legal advisor, has agreed to pay a Washington attorney’s office $32,000 (Sh3.2 million) for services this month.

Paul Mwangi & Co Advocates is retaining the Law Offices of Gary Silverstein to serve as “consultants and advisors with regard to various federal agency and legislative issues pertaining to the rule of law and democracy in Kenya”, according to the October 30 filing.

DEPORTED
Nasa has meanwhile contracted directly with Aristotle International, a consulting firm headed by John Phillips.

He was deported from Kenya a few days prior to the later-annulled August 8 presidential election.

Mr Phillips, who had worked on Mr Odinga’s presidential campaign for nearly two months, was deported for supposedly violating visa regulations.

According to a September filing with US authorities, Aristotle International is conducting a fundraising campaign on Nasa’s behalf.

Mr Phillips’ firm has also sought to “enlist US government support for a fair and transparent election process in Kenya through meetings/phone calls and emails to and with Members of Congress, congressional staff and State Department officials”, the filing states.

PODESTA
The financial terms of the Nasa-Aristotle agreement have not yet been disclosed.

But it is another influential firm linked to Kenya that provides a sub-plot to current events in the US.

In 2015, the government of President Kenyatta turned to the Podesta Group, a firm owned by John Podesta, a Democratic Party insider who once served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

He was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in last year’s elections, which she lost to Mr Trump.

Filings at the US Department of Justice indicated that the group received at least $90,000 (Sh9 million) in 2015 — that did not include expenses for business-class travel and accommodation for those involved in the project — to strengthen Kenya’s ties with the US government and institutions.

KQ FLIGHTS
A top objective in retaining the Podesta Group was to “assist the national airline to get direct landing rights in the US”, Kenya’s Ambassador to Washington Robinson Githae told the Sunday Nation in 2015.

In September this year, Kenya got approval to operate flights directly between Nairobi and the US but there are pending regulatory hurdles.

It has not been immediately clear what role the lobbyists played in the push.

Ironically, although they ideologically support different political parties in the US, Mr Manafort and the Podesta Group are now joined at the hip over the Ukraine affair.

UKRAINE

On the day Mr Manafort was being indicted, Tony Podesta, a brother of John and a co-founder of the firm that bear their surname, resigned from the company after it was revealed that he had been irregularly paid by Mr Manafort to promote Ukraine in the US.

Back to Mr Manafort. The source of his current woes is another dictator, not in Africa, but in Europe: Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president and a close ally of Russia.

US prosecutors now claim that Mr Manafort’s and Mr Gates’ work in Ukraine, that generated millions of dollars in revenue, was not above board. He has denied the charges.

“In order to hide payments from the US authorities, Manafort and Gates laundered the money,” US authorities said.

It was a hard fall for a man who was reputed to have an answer for every political challenge.

Additional reporting by Kevin J Kelley in New York