• U.S.

The Slickest Shop in Town

5 minute read
Evan Thomas

A lobbyist can perform no greater favor for a lawmaker than to help get him elected. It is the ultimate political IOU, and it can be cashed in again and again. No other firm holds more of this precious currency than the Washington shop known as Black, Manafort.

Legally, there are two firms. Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, a lobbying operation, represents Bethlehem Steel, the Tobacco Institute, Herbalife, Angolan “Freedom Fighter” Jonas Savimbi and the governments of the Bahamas and the Philippines. Black, Manafort, Stone & Atwater, a political-consulting firm, has helped elect such powerful Republican politicians as Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jesse Helms.

The political credentials of the partners are imposing. Charles Black, 38, was a top aide to Senator Robert Dole and the senior strategist for President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. Paul Manafort, 36, was the political director of the 1984 G.O.P. national convention. Roger Stone, 33, was the Eastern regional campaign director for Reagan in 1984 and is now one of Congressman Jack Kemp’s chief political advisers. Peter Kelly, 48, was finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1981 to 1985. Lee Atwater, 34, was Reagan’s deputy campaign manager in 1984 and is now Vice President George Bush’s chief political adviser. Alone among the firm’s partners, Atwater sticks to advising electoral candidates and does not lobby.

The partners of Black, Manafort say that the lobbying and political- consulting functions are kept separate. “It’s like a grocery store and a hardware store,” insists Black. “You can’t buy eggs at a hardware store and you can’t buy tires at the grocery.” Yet these are but fine distinctions in Washington, where the firm is considered one of the most ambidextrous in the business, the ultimate supermarket of influence peddling. “You are someone’s political adviser, then you sell yourself to a corporation by saying you have a special relationship with Congress,” says Democratic Media Consultant Robert Squier, who does no lobbying himself. Is it proper to get a politician elected, then turn around and lobby him? “It’s a gray area,” sidesteps Squier. Charges Fred Wertheimer, president of the public-interest lobbying group Common Cause: “It’s institutionalized conflict of interest.”

It certainly is good for business. The partners charge six-figure fees to lobby and six-figure fees to manage election campaigns. As a result, they take home six-figure salaries. (Their stated aim is to make $450,000 apiece each year; they are assumed to have achieved it last year.) They unabashedly peddle their access to the Reagan Administration. The firm’s proposal soliciting the Bahamas as a client, for instance, touted the “personal relationships between State Department officials and Black, Manafort & Stone” that could be “utilized to upgrade a backchannel relationship in the economic and foreign policy spheres.”

When Savimbi came to Washington last month to seek support for his guerrilla organization, UNITA, in its struggle against the Marxist regime in Angola, he hired Black, Manafort. What the firm achieved was quickly dubbed “Savimbi chic.” 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. Dole had shown only general interest in Savimbi’s cause until Black, the Senate majority leader’s former aide, approached him on his client’s behalf. Dole promptly introduced a congressional resolution backing UNITA’s insurgency and sent a letter to the State Department urging that the U.S. supply it with heavy arms. The firm’s fee for such services was reportedly $600,000.

The Black, Manafort partners have woven such an intricate web of connections that the strands become entangled at times. Lobbyist Kelly served as finance chairman of the National Democratic Institute, a public-interest organization established by Congress to promote democracy in underdeveloped countries. The institute recently sent observers to try to ensure a fair election in the Philippines. Yet Kelly’s firm, for a reported $900,000 fee, represents Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, who stands accused of having stolen the vote. Manafort for one sees no conflict. He points out that the firm urged Marcos to try to make the elections more credible to American observers. “What we’ve tried to do is make it more of a Chicago-style election and not Mexico’s,” he explained.

As a political firm, Black, Manafort represents Democrats and Republicans alike–and sometimes candidates running for the same seat. Kelly, for instance, is doing some fund raising for Democratic Senate Candidates John Breaux in Louisiana, Bob Graham in Florida and Patrick Leahy in Vermont. Atwater and Black are consultants for the Republican opponents in these contests. In the race for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, Atwater advises Bush, while Stone advises Kemp. Stone and Atwater’s offices are right across the hall from each other, prompting one congressional aide to ask facetiously, “Why have primaries for the nomination? Why not have the candidates go over to Black, Manafort & Stone and argue it out?”

Stone and Atwater present a contrast in styles. Stone, who practices the hardball politics he first learned as an aide to convicted Watergate Co- Conspirator Charles Colson, fancies $400 suits and lawn parties. With his heavy-lidded eyes and frosty demeanor, he openly derides Atwater’s client, Vice President Bush, as a “weenie.” Atwater, an impish good ole boy from South Carolina, wears jeans and twangs an electric guitar. Both, however, drive Mercedes.

For all its diverse interests, the firm remains “loyal to the President,” says Black. “We would never lobby against Star Wars, for example.” The firm has nonetheless attacked the President’s tax-reform bill on behalf of corporate clients seeking to preserve their loopholes, and it did not hesitate to lobby for quotas on shoe imports on behalf of the Footwear Industries of America, even though Reagan strongly opposed the bill as protectionist. And at times the firm does show some selectivity. A few years back, it turned down Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi as a client.

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