Lobbying shop's registration raises questions

As CNOOC’s lobbying team at Akin Gump is weathering criticism on Capitol Hill for its involvement with a Chinese-government-controlled company, an inconsistency in the firm’s public statements calls its compliance with the law into question.

Akin Gump Chairman R. Bruce McLean wrote a letter to the editor of The Washington Post in response to an op-ed on CNOOC written by columnist Robert Novak. “Akin Gump began to represent CNOOC earlier this year, before it learned that Chevron would bid for Unocal,” McLean said in the letter, which appeared Sunday in the Post. But according to Justice Department documents, Akin Gump was not registered as a foreign-agent lobbyist for CNOOC until June 23, the day after CNOOC’s bid for Unocal and two months after Chevron made its offer.

Under federal law, any firm lobbying for a foreign agent without registering with the Justice Department is subject to steep fines and punishment.

Mark Palmer of Public Strategies, who has been retained as spokesman for CNOOC’s lobbying activity, said Akin Gump’s lawyers were representing CNOOC but not actually lobbying on the company’s behalf until the foreign-agent registration was filed.

“It began to represent CNOOC [in early 2005] but not lobby for CNOOC,” Palmer said. Akin Gump’s lawyers “weren’t advocating or distributing materials on behalf of the client until the bid was actually made.”

Akin Gump’s CNOOC team is packed with elite lobbyists to counter the extensive lobbying corps retained by Chevron to help land Unocal ownership. Dan Spiegel, leader of Akin Gump’s international trade group, is a key player in the firm’s efforts on behalf of CNOOC. Spiegel was made ambassador to the U.S. Mission in Geneva during the Clinton administration and lobbies for AT&T, Time Warner, Volkswagen, Wyeth and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Another Akin Gump lobbyist on the CNOOC account, Edward Rubinoff, is a member of the President’s Export Council Subcommittee on Export Administration, a panel that evaluates trade deals for national-security risks. Rubinoff, who has previously lobbied for the Bank of New York and global equity fund Alliance Capital Management, is an expert in the workings of CFIUS, the interagency task force that will review CNOOC’s offer for Unocal.

Former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y., 1988-1998), a senior adviser at Akin Gump and husband of top lobbyist and former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), is also assisting in the firm’s work on behalf of CNOOC. Paxon was involved in the failed 1997 coup against former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) before retiring from Congress.

In Chevron’s corner is an extensive team of trade-savvy lobbyists led by Lisa Barry, vice president of the company’s Washington office and a former senior vice president of international public policy for AOL Time Warner. Barry also has retained former AOL Time Warner colleague Elizabeth Frazee, who now runs her own, namesake lobby shop, to work on the Unocal deal. Frazee is a former legislative counsel to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and has lobbied for Walt Disney Co.

Chevron’s second outside ally in its quest for Unocal is Fontheim International, the lobbying firm founded by Claude Fontheim, a former lawyer for Akin Gump. Fontheim’s firm has lobbied as a foreign agent for Singapore and the Marshall Islands, and he has chaired the centrist Democratic Leadership Council’s project on America, the new global economy and trade.

Working with Fontheim on the Chevron account are Ken Levinson, a former trade and foreign-policy aide to Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who worked on negotiating permanent trade relations with China, and Dorothy Hammonds, a trade theorist-turned-lobbyist who has advocated for abolishing the Commerce Department and creating a revamped Department of Technology and Trade.