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Too Hot for K Street?

Africa's first "narco-state" loses its fancy D.C. lobbying firm—but not for the obvious reason


There are few more hopeless places on Earth than the tiny, impoverished West African nation of Guinea-Bissau. In addition to the usual challenges afflicting that part of the world, the former Portuguese colony of 1.6 million people has, over the past decade or so, had to contend with the side effects of having become a key transit point for cocaine headed from Latin America to Europe: addiction and prostitution, death threats against police and journalists, and, above all, an officialdom so riddled with corruption that it's hard to know who is not on the take. It has become, as the executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime warned of a few years ago, Africa’s first “narco-state.”

For all its troubles, though, the country did have one thing going for it: Its government was represented by one of Washington’s most storied and influential lobbying firms, Cassidy & Associates, which, since its 1975 founding by a couple former George McGovern aides, has grown into a behemoth with hundreds of corporate, government and higher ed clients and a reputation as the granddaddy of the modern influence industry. Despite reports that the country’s upper ranks were involved in the drug trade, Cassidy agreed last September to take on as a client the government that came into power following a military coup last April, for a contract that was reported at the time to be worth $1.2 million-per-year, to help build up the new government's legitimacy and advise it on badly-needed economic development efforts.

Earlier this month, the reports of corruption became even harder to ignore, when Rear Adm. José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, the former head of Guinea-Bissau navy, was arrested on the high seas by American agents in a long-planned drug-trafficking sting. The operation included meetings with “millions in cash, guns and drugs...on the table.” And that very same day, April 2, Cassidy filed notice with the U.S. Department of Justice, which tracks lobbying on behalf of foreign governments, that it was ending its representation of Guinea-Bissau.

The filing (which I came across on the handy database of the Sunlight Foundation) made no mention of the drug trafficking allegations, which expanded last week with the indictment of Gen. Antonio Injai, the country’s current military chief, by a New York grand jury on cocaine and weapons trafficking charges. Instead, Cassidy offered a more mundane explanation for cutting off its contract: Guinea-Bissau wasn’t paying up: “The Foreign Principal was unable to fund the project and as such unable to make the payments agreed to in the contract. As a result, no services were rendered…” Cassidy vice chairman Gregg Hartley, a former chief of staff to Missouri Republican House member (and now senator) Roy Blunt and one of the two lobbyists who worked on the contract, said the same when I reached him Thursday. He insisted that the drug-trafficking sting had nothing to do with the termination, much as the timing might make it look that way: “It was as much a surprise to me as anyone that our termination … was at about the same time there was other breaking news. They were totally unrelated.”

Regardless of the reason, Cassidy’s engagement with Guinea-Bissau sheds a light on one of the more hidden aspects of the Washington influence industry: the work of lobbying firms on behalf of suspect foreign governments. Only occasionally does this sort of work burst into the open—as when former Clinton administration legal counsel Lanny Davis took on a $10,000 month contract with the Ivory Coast strongman who was refusing to leave office after an election loss, presiding over civil strife that claimed the lives of some 3,000 people, and was eventually indicted by the International Criminal Court. This has brought Davis considerable notoriety, but Cassidy's Guinea-Bissau filing is a reminder that Davis is hardly the only old Washington hand to court controversy overseas.

The other Cassidy lobbyist on the Guinea-Bissau contract, senior vice president Mark Clack, spoke freely about Cassidy’s decision to go work for the new government, which he said wanted the firm’s help in “helping them engage the international community”—specifically gaining recognition from the United Nations and regional bodies within Africa by helping it “tell the story of how the government transition came about and moving forward.” He said the firm was aware of the rumors of high-level involvement in drug trafficking, but they were not strong enough to dissuade it from taking on the contract. “Those were some of the issues we had raised—to say, ‘Hey, look, you guys need to address this stuff. We can’t just have it out there,’” said Clack. He said the firm had done its “due diligence” with the U.S. State Department before taking the contract, determining that it had opened channels to the new government (though the U.S. has not had an embassy in Guinea-Bissau since its brutal 1998 civil war.) “We figured, look, if our government has diplomatic relations with them, let’s at least give them the benefit of the doubt,” Clack said. “When we went, there were no signs of trafficking or things like that. There were persistent rumors and reports, and we made it clear that this was something they needed to address and take very seriously.”

A devastating in-depth Washington Post report from just a few years ago makes it hard to believe, though, that signs of rampant trafficking and corruption would not have been in evidence. The piece, headlined “Route of Evil,” describes hordes of addicts hooked on drugs doled out as bribes, plastic-wrapped bricks of cocaine washing ashore, and “mysterious foreigners [who] tool around Guinea-Bissau’s crumbling roads in expensive Porsche and BMW sport-utility vehicles," dining in restaurants selling plates of jumbo shrimp for $50 and buying up Johnnie Walker green label whiskey bottles for $132 while many other residents scrounge for food.

Things got only worse after the coup, which brought the corruption much closer to the government itself, the New York Timesreported in November:

The military brass here has long been associated with drug trafficking, but the coup last spring means soldiers now control the drug racket and the country itself, turning Guinea-Bissau in the eyes of some international counternarcotics experts into a nation where illegal drugs are sanctioned at the top. “They are probably the worst narco-state that’s out there on the continent,” said a senior Drug Enforcement Administration official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his work in the region. “They are a major problem.”

Since the April 12 coup, more small twin-engine planes than ever are making the 1,600-mile Atlantic crossing from Latin America to the edge of Africa’s western bulge, landing in Guinea-Bissau’s fields, uninhabited islands and remote estuaries. There they unload their cargos of cocaine for transshipment north, experts say. The fact that the army has put in place a figurehead government and that military officers continue to call the shots behind the scenes only intensifies the problem.

Clack said he and Hartley saw nothing of the sort when they visited the country in September, and that they met with neither the former naval commander nor the current military chief implicated in this month’s sting. “We saw some new boutique-ish hotels … but Tony Montana-types driving around in expensive cars, we didn’t see anything like that,” he said. “We heard of rumors of planes landing and people to stay in their houses so they could unload and so on and so forth, but we didn’t see any of that. We saw dilapidated buildings and poor villages.” Another sight that stood out, he said, were the 60 metric tons of cashews, one of the country’s main exports, sitting in the port with nowhere to go, a function of a national economy in disarray.

After the trip, Cassidy produced a two-minute video on the firm’s ambitious plans for working with Guinea-Bissau, including converting the country from a net importer of rice to a net exporter and building up its underutilized fishing industry. “The country is at a key location in West Africa,” Hartley says in the video, with potential to be a “hub of transportation, trade and investment”—which, of course, it already is in one regard.

In the end, Cassidy did carry out one key deliverable for the government—in September, it kept the U.N. General Assembly from recognizing the government in exile ousted by the coup, and made sure that the U.N. instead credentialed the new government. The firm got “pretty much nothing at all” for this work, Clack said. But Hartley said that Cassidy does not hold a grudge: “We would be pleased, should Guinea-Bissau find the funds, to continue the relationship.” In the foreign lobbying trade, business is business, even in the shadow of that other business, the kind that bobs to shore in bricks wrapped in plastic. 

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis