Setup on K Street

Last year, Ken Silverstein, an investigative reporter and the Washington editor of Harpers magazine, lit upon a splendid idea: he would pose as the representative of a fictitious British investment firm whose huge holdings in the energy-rich, diabolically ruled Turkmenistan had inspired the company, the opaquely named Maldon Group, to spruce up the image of the corrupt and criminal regime. Using the name Kenneth Case, and bearing as his premier qualification a canny marriage to Maldons chairmans daughter, Silverstein angled to meet with Washingtons wealthiest, best connectedand, on the basis of information and beliefmost cynical and least principled lobbying firms, aiming to receive their thoughts about how to burnish Turkmenistans image, improve its relations with the U.S. government, and obtain better coverage of the country from the news media.

Silversteins idea, the pursuit of which he first chronicled in Harpers and now covers in Turkmeniscam, was enterprising, but not altogether new. In 1992, the journalist Art Levine (a contributing editor of this magazine) wrote an article for Spy magazine (where I was an editor) on the topic of Washingtons greediest, sleaziest lobbyists. As part of that story, a Spy staffer posed as a representative of a Bremerhaven-based neo-Nazi group that sought a lobbyist to help the organization rid Germany of immigrants, counter Jewish influence in Congress, and reclaim Poland. These ambitions were too outrageous for most of the lobbyists tested, but a flamboyant and notoriously accommodating figure named Edward J. von Kloberg IIIthe von was purely an affectation, and perhaps everything else was, tootried to land the contract. “I believe in many of the tenets that you believe in,” he said, and unguently pointed to David Duke as a sign that the climate in this country might be turning favorably for their goals. He hung himself with every word he uttered.

Von Klobergwho committed suicide three years ago by jumping from the parapet of a castle in Romenever quite recovered from that exposure. The lobbying industry, however, not only endured, but triumphed: shrugging off exposures, absorbing half-hearted efforts at reform, spitting out Jack Abramoffs and Duke Cunninghams for whom enough was never enough, and turning the last decade into the Golden Age of the Earmark, lobbying firms are bigger and better entrenched than ever.

Aiming to show these weasels at work, Silverstein laid his trap. As any fan of undercover capers and behind-the-lines adventures will tell you, the preparation of the story is a big part of the entertainment, and its fun to see Silverstein equip Kenneth Case with a cell phone bearing a London exchange, a Web site, an e-mail address, business cards, and a credible but decidedly dull backstory (the better to deflect curiosity). Along the way, he explains at length how bad lobbyists in general are, how bad the specific lobbyists hes targeting are, and how awful Turkmenistan is. In thoroughly reported and enlightening passages, Silverstein shows us the growth of lobbyings malign influence, taking us from the exertions of Ivy Lee on behalf of John D. Rockefeller and the Nazis, to the sexual shenanigans of Paula Parkinson, to the depredations of Jack Abramoff and his oily ilk. He piles on justifications that are informative and shocking in their way, but kind of beside the pointall fans of this genre are really expecting is the cold-blooded execution.

Unfortunately, Silverstein is so completely convinced of the guilt of the giant lobbying firms he has targeted that he does not quite manage to convict them with his sting. Unlike the Spy pranksters who seduced von Kloberg into revealing himself, Silverstein simply does not go far enough. As he himself admits, he was terribly concerned about being discovered. “My nightmare scenario,” he writes,

was being identified as a journalist while on the premises of one of the lobbying firms. Police involvement was unlikely but legal charges (or at least the threat) seemed possible. At a minimum, being busted on-site would have been a personal and professional humiliation [T]he prospect of not getting a story and being ridiculed as an incompetent boob was terrifying.

Apparently all of Silversteins colleagues at Harpers are earnest and conscientious, but what he really needed at this point was someone blithe and irresponsible to egg him on. The reality is that the prospect of arrest was small, conviction nil, and embarrassmentin a profession that welcomes imposters, drug fiends, and certain felonsa nonfactor. Somebody needed to buck Kenny up. After all, you can become a pretty good quarterback in the NFL dinking and dunking the ball down the field, but you become Brett Favre when youre willing to heave the ball. If youre going to complete the bomb, youve got to throw the bomb.

Wary of exposure but still brave enough to go through with the act, Silverstein convinced himself that merely by meeting him and offering a plan, the lobbyists would reveal themselves as the varmints he knew them to be. Im not convinced they did so. For one thing, Silversteins overture to the companies was keyed to an all-too-credible lie.

[S]oon after [President] Berdymuk-hamedovs ascent to power via the sham election, I began contacting the lobbying firms and explained that we were eager to improve relations between the United States and the “newly-elected government of Turkmenistan.” We required the services of a firm that could quickly produce a “strategic communications plan” and otherwise help us achieve our aims, which included arranging meetings between Turkmen government bigwigs and American officials.

Well, you cant make an overture like that and expect people to call you a liar. Its true that Berdymukhamedov, the strongman with the tongue-twisting name, was elected over five rivals with a Sovietish 89 percent of the vote, and he certainly seems like a nasty, brutish bloke. But blood did not run in the streets on Election Day. (Im basing this on Silversteins accounts, but since he points out that the regime closed the Internet cafs, I think he would have mentioned it if they had busted any heads.) Under these circumstances, when somebody says hed like to improve relations, its not exactly an indictable offense to have him over for a talk. Perhaps this is a sign of how pervasive cynicism has become, or how all-encompassing the corruption has grown, or what a low sense of outrage I personally possess, but we have a long history of dealing with people who do terrible things. (Werent the Olympics fun!) We even have a name to use when our morally superior selves engage in trade with the less enlightened: constructive engagement. And often enough, it works. One cannot really convict the lobbyists just because they responded to Silversteins initial lie.

Noto be convincing, he would have had to lie a lot more. Perhaps Silverstein could have explicitly shared with the lobbyists his concerns about Berdymukhamedovs repressive tendencies, his venality, and his corruption, or prodded them on how they would handle a news report of some atrocity. The lobbyists were clearly aware of Turkmenistans cruel history. Gregg Hartley, vice chairman of the firm Cassidy & Associates, mentioned that when the firm went to work for Equatorial Guinea three years earlier, Teodoro Obiang was ranked as the worlds sixth worst dictator by Parade magazine, and now hes no longer even in the top ten, although Hartley admitted, “Hes still not a great guy.” Responding to Silversteins question as to whether Turkmenistan would be held to “impossibly high” human rights standards, Barry Schumacher of the firm APCO said there were would be “isolated incidents that look bad, and its up to the communications company to figure out a way to be honest about them, to react and put them in a proper perspective, to make sure they dont derail the campaign,” and then said, “something terrible would be hard to overcome.”

Well, these are brilliant bits of double-talk, to be sure, and the lobbyists all-but-explicit admission that theyd be willing to serve as apologists for crimes that were just short of top-ten-terrible is kind of shocking. But given the careful couching and euphemisms, I wouldnt be surprised if these fellows would have expressed themselves in just the same way in a conference or a classroom or even in an interview. I dont think someone needed to be wearing a wire to hear any of this.

I wish Silverstein had overcome his fear of discovery and had pressed them further. As we learned from Borat, people incriminate themselves left and right, often out of only an exaggerated sense of politeness. Indeed, in one of Turkmeniscams most revealing moments (and perhaps its most hilarious), Silversteins all-but-silent confederate, the Spaniard “Riccardo,” launches into a lengthy bit of gibberish about investment. “Like Ken was talking about it, okay, theres personal return that brings benefits, etcetera etcetera etcetera. In other words, to diversify investmentshow do you bring those diversified investments into a direct foreign investment in this kind of political atmosphere such as this country?” After some more of this, Silverstein says Hartley said he “knew just what Riccardo had been talking about.”

In such comments resides the greatest value of the book: Turkmeniscam is a revelation of state-of-the-art bullshit. The lobbyists all boasted to Silverstein of the influential people they had on staff, the congressmen and senators and administration officials whose numbers were kept on speed dial, the receptions and conferences and studies and op-ed articles they could produce. Any of these could be useful in getting results, none could be guaranteed to produce a thing. As the Abramoff saga showed us, the only guarantee when a lobbyist is hired by a client is that the client will pay (or wontin which case its guaranteed that he will become an ex-client). Sure, sometimes its the lobbyist who counts, but almost always its the money.

Like payola in the music industry, lobbying is a game for middlemen who have identified a vulnerability in the process and a weakness in its practitioners. But payola is illegal, and its payers get sent to jail. Lobbyists may be reviled in some circles, but they are still accepted, respected, and even envied for their positions of power in the ecosystem of the nations capital. No one in Washington would sit with the gangster who engages in bribery and payoffs, but lobbyists are the high priests of a holy ritual that produces milk from a golden cow. If Silversteins book does not quite capture them as nakedly as he wished, it still shows why they should be shooed into the shadows.

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.