Covington and Burling and the Cote d’Ivoire

by Peggy McGuinness

According to the Washington Post, Covington and Burling has filed with the Department of Justice to represent Alassane Ouattara, the recognized winner of the presidential election in Cote d’Ivoire.  Why would a U.S. law firm be representing (pro bono no less!) a foreign politician? According to Covington’s international policy advisor, Alan Larson, the purpose was to make sure that ousted president Gbagbo — who, until recently, was represented (at top fees!) by Lanny Davis — did not improperly capture moneys to be paid to the government of Cote d’Ivoire:

“Our highest and best use is to be providing legal and strategic advice on the steps that need to be taken to make sure that he [Ouattara] is recognized for what he is, which is the elected, legitimate president of Cote d’Ivoire,” Larson said, using the French name for the country. “It’s very important in the big scheme of things to have the situation in Cote d’Ivoire come out right.”

No doubt Covington will be in a competitive position to get fee-based work from Ouattara’s government after it has been properly installed.

The papers filed with DoJ are required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act:

The rush to represent both sides in Ivory Coast underscores the lucrative but little-noticed world of overseas lobbying, in which U.S. firms sign contracts with foreign governments, leaders or companies to represent their interests. Under a long-standing law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, U.S. firms are required to disclose the details of such contracts to the Justice Department, including payment schedules.

But such arrangements can prove uncomfortable if the clients become the focus of international controversy. Last week, for example, the Washington Media Group announced that it had severed ties with the collapsing regime in Tunisia amid reports of human rights abuses.

The process of Foreign Agent registration (i.e., becoming a lobbyist for foreign interests) is quite transparent.  You can search the DoJ database here.  Many of the registrants are lawyers, but a surprising number of names associated with some of the larger law and lobbying firms are former U.S. diplomats.

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