By Kevin Bogardus - 06/30/09 07:14 PM EDT
The photograph was on the website for Bingham McCutchen, a law firm representing — on a pro bono basis — four Chinese Uighurs held at Guantánamo.
Collins is well-known in political circles and worked as a strategist during President Obama’s run for the White House. During the campaign and since taking office, Obama has sought to keep lobbyists at an arm’s length as part of an effort to change Washington’s culture.
After The Hill asked attorneys at Bingham about Collins’s involvement with the placement of the Uighurs in Bermuda, the firm removed the photo from its website. It replaced it with a photo of the four detainees stepping off their charter flight to Bermuda.
Collins, president and CEO of Public Private Partnership, declined to comment on the photograph or his work with the Uighurs.
“It is our policy to not comment on the service we provide to any of our public or private clientele,” Collins said to The Hill in an e-mail.
A spokeswoman for Bingham McCutchen declined to comment about the photograph switch.
A Bermudan government press official said settling the four Uighurs in Bermuda was not Collins’s idea, but that he helped facilitate the transfer.
“Art Collins does indeed do work for the government of Bermuda, but he did not propose the transfer of innocent detainees from Guantánamo Bay to Bermuda,” said Glenn Jones, press secretary to Bermuda Premier Dr. Ewart Brown. “He did, however, assist in facilitating this humanitarian gesture.”
A White House spokesman declined to comment for this story.
Accepting the detainees was considered a diplomatic plus for Bermuda, though Bermudan officials have insisted they received nothing in return. Obama said earlier this month that he was “grateful” to the country for taking in the former prisoners.
Bermuda could have something to gain from being in the administration’s good graces, as the White House has targeted Bermuda in the past for tax issues. According to a May 4 fact sheet put out by the White House, the country is identified as a major tax haven for U.S. corporations, which the administration plans to eliminate.
Besides serving as a strategist for Obama during the then-Illinois senator’s presidential run last year, Collins also served as a public liaison for the administration’s transition team. Additionally, Collins was a senior adviser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during his 2004 White House run, and serves as treasurer for the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute.
Collins’s agreement to represent Bermuda is worth $200,00 and lasts a year from April 1, according to the contract filed with the Justice Department. Collins is working on “strengthening the U.S. relationship with the foreign principal,” according to the contract.
The Uighurs held at Guantánamo Bay have been a political hot potato for the administration. Lawmakers have prevented their placement in the U.S., and other countries have been reluctant to accept them, partly out of fear of angering China.
China sees the Uighurs, who were cleared years ago of being enemy combatants by the U.S. government, as hostile and it is believed they would face certain persecution and even torture by Chinese authorities.
Bermuda’s acceptance of the detainees has been praised by government officials and human-rights organizations.
The move to accept the detainees, however, triggered consternation from another ally, the United Kingdom. The British, as the head of the commonwealth, were upset that they were not consulted in advance by either the American or Bermudan governments regarding the transfer.
Outside of Collins’s firm, Bermuda has a small clutch of lobbyists working on its behalf in Washington, including Darlene Richeson, a former Verizon lobbyist. The country also employs Patton Boggs, with Rodney Slater, the former Clinton administration Transportation secretary, leading the account, according to Justice Department records. Bermuda’s contracts suggest its lobbying team’s primary focus is on tax and regulatory issues.