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Lobbyists Jump Ship In Wake Of Mideast Unrest

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BAHRAIN QORVIS
AP

This story has been updated

NEW YORK -- One of Washington's best-known lobbying and public relations firms has been upended in the wake of the turmoil in the Middle East due in part to its representation of some of the region's autocratic governments.

In the last two months, more than a third of the partners at Qorvis have left the firm to start their own lobby shops, partly because of the firm's work on behalf of such clients as Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Central African nation of Equatorial Guinea, say former employees.

"I just have trouble working with despotic dictators killing their own people," a former Qorvis insider tells The Huffington Post. "People don't want to be seen representing all these countries -- you take a look at the State Department's list of human rights violators and some of our clients were on there."

The governments of Bahrain and Yemen, which have been condemned by the United Nations for their brutal crackdowns that resulted in dozens of protesters killed and hundreds injured, are both represented by Qorvis through a subcontract to British public relations giant Bell Pottinger. Saudi Arabia, which last week sent troops to assist in riot control in Bahrain and has long been cited for its poor human rights record, is a longtime client of the firm. And Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich dictatorship considered one of the most corrupt and undemocratic regimes in the world, likewise pays Qorvis to burnish its reputation.

Several former Qorvis staffers blamed the firm's current management for cultivating such "black hat" clients, noting that much of that business came about through the firm's partnership with Bell Pottinger, the United Kingdom's largest public relations firm, which took heat for representing Sri Lanka during that South Asian country's brutal crackdown on rebel groups during the last two years. "They have zero conscience in what they do," says the first former insider, referring to Bell Pottinger. A spokesperson for Bell Pottinger did not return calls for comment.

Such "black hat" countries pay well -- Equatorial Guinea pays Qorvis $55,000 per month and Saudi Arabian initially paid Qorvis $14 million per year back in 2002 to polish its reputation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, though in recent years the latter contract has been much less lucrative. "These scumbags will pay whatever you want," says the former insider. "You can charge retainers that are huge."

The firm's founder and CEO, Michael Petruzzello, says that such complaints are "ridiculous" and disingenuous, asserting that the firm's work with international clients preceded the tenure of departing partners and that no one complained about it. "If they had a problem with it, it would have been discussed," he said. He adds that most of those former partners worked at Qorvis for six to seven years and that they left primarily to start their own businesses, which is very common in the hothouse world of D.C.-based lobbying and public relations outfits. The principals who departed include Kelley McCormick (who left in early March for Gibraltar Associates), Don Goldberg, Michael Quint and Jason Siegel (who resigned in February to start a new firm, Bluetext), and Maura Corbett, who left in November to launch the Glen Echo Group.

Petruzzello defends the firm's work on behalf of countries with troubled reputations, explaining that the firm's international clients represent only 20 percent of its business (which primarily consists of large corporate clients such as Cisco and Sprint). "The reason they hire Qorvis and others is that they have a narrative they feel is not being heard -- and they want a chance to be heard in the court of public opinion." He adds that he's proud of the work the firm has done for Bahrain, for example, explaining that every Secretary of the Navy has said that there is no stronger ally of the United States than the island nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

And Petruzzello, who quickly named four new principals in recent weeks, insists that the firm "has the strongest leadership team in [its] 10-year history." Among them are former State Department staffer Greg Lagana and former Washington Times editor Sam Dealey, who are handling a new $92,000 litigation communications contract with Cairo-based EZZ Industries. That company's owner, Egyptian business tycoon Ahmed Ezz, a friend of the Mubarak family, was arrested amid the unrest in that country. Qorvis's role is to promote "a transparent judicial system in Egypt," reports O'Dwyer's.

It's not the first time that Qorvis has witnessed a mass exodus due in some part to its unsavory clients. After Qorvis was retained by Saudi Arabia several months after 9/11, the contract attracted controversy and a Justice Department probe of the firm for its involvement in a radio ad campaign that burnished the image of the country, leading three top principals (Bernie Merrit, Jim Weber and Judy Smith) to leave the firm. Weber and Merritt, who run their own firm, did not return calls for comment.

One of the methods used by Qorvis and other firms is online reputation management -- through its Geo-Political Solutions (GPS) division, the firm uses '"black arts" by creating fake blogs and websites that link back to positive content, "to make sure that no one online comes across the bad stuff," says the former insider. Other techniques include the use of social media, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Recently, Qorvis helped frame the kingdom's crackdown on protests by highlighting statements made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which she emphasized America's commitment to Bahrain and affirmed its "sovereign right" to invite security forces from other countries. Clinton's comment that the government is "on the wrong track," however, was omitted, notes the Sunlight Foundation's Paul Blumenthal.

The firm's work for Equatorial Guinea, whose strongman Teodoro Obiang has been accused by the UN Commission on Human Rights of directly overseeing the torture of his opponents, includes sending out news releases about the country's support for animal conservation and a native daughter being named Michigan "Teacher of the Year." In a lengthy Harper's profile of Obiang and his son, Qorvis principal Matthew J. Lauer defended the country, saying, "No one is saying there are no problems, but it's not North Korea," but declined to respond to questions about claims of corruption and money laundering by U.S. investigators.

Other high-powered firms operate in the Mideast -- Patton Boggs, which owns a percentage of Qorvis and which recently made headlines when President Obama sent one of the firm's lawyers, Frank Wisner, to negotiate with Egypt's recently-ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, has long worked with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Qorvis and Patton Boggs were both subpoenaed in 2002 by the House Committee on Government Reform, which was investigating reports of American children kidnapped and held in Saudi Arabia. The Livingston Group, founded by former Louisiana Rep. Robert L. Livingston, was paid $2.4 million to represent Libya in 2008 and 2009. And the Washington Media Group ended its $420,000 contract to enhance the image of Tunisia in January after images of the country's brutal crackdown on protesters made headlines around the world. The United Arab Emirates was the second-biggest foreign lobbying client, paying $5.3 million to DLA Piper and other firms in 2009 to help get more access to U.S. nuclear technology, among other issues.

And former Wall Street Journal reporter Christopher Cooper was recently hired for $20,000 a month by Bahrain's envoy to the U.S. government to help get the administration and members of Congress behind the Crown Prince's idea of a national dialogue, says Cooper. Envoy Abdul Latif Zayani, Bahrain's former chief of police, is a familiar presence in military and diplomatic circles and was once a classmate of Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen.

The region is attractive to lobbying firms due to the lucrative contracts but it can also present challenges. "If you get associated with somebody who turns out to be a Gaddafy kind of person, you're not in the company of one of the nice people of the world and that could harm your reputation," says Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "And in the lobbying world, your reputation is everything."

"Most of us are not guns for hire -- we would like to be able to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and feel that we are not associated with child molesters, wife beaters. And to do work that meets our own test of ethics and conscience," he added. Making sure to emphasize that he was not referring to the Qorvis situation, he called on lobbyists to follow their conscience. "It's a commendable thing for a lobbyist to have their own set of ethics -- if I'm doing something that I'm uncomfortable with, then I need to get out of it."

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously reported that legendary publicist Judy Smith died last year based on an incorrect online report. I sincerely regret the error.