Former lawmakers drop lobbying work for the Ivory Coast amid turmoil

Two former members of Congress have dropped their contracts working for interests in the Ivory Coast as the country’s turmoil continues to be a source of controversy for Washington lobbyists. 

Former Reps. Mike Espy (D-Miss.) and Bob McEwen (R-Ohio) both told The Hill they have dropped their contracts working for interests in the African nation. 

Lobbying contracts for the Ivory Coast have come under scrutiny amid a violent struggle for the nation’s highest office. The conflict centers on President Laurent Gbabgo, who has refused to leave power after losing in an election last year to rival Alassane Ouattara.

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The United Nations, the U.S. government and others have recognized Ouattara as the winner of Ivory Coast’s Nov. 28 presidential runoff, but Gbabgo has refused to accept those results.

The contested election has led to violent skirmishes in the country between forces allied with the two men. 

Both Gbabgo and Ouattara turned to K Street for help in the standoff over the election. 

Gbagbo hired former Clinton White House special counsel Lanny Davis to provide “legal advice and legal representation in Washington,” according to Justice Department records. Davis, however, terminated the $300,000, three-month agreement after Gbagbo refused to take a phone call from President Obama. Davis is a columnist for The Hill as well as a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog. 

Ouattara, meanwhile, has signed up the lobbying firm Jefferson Waterman International and the law and lobby firm Covington & Burling to make his case before U.S. officials, according to Justice records.

Espy and McEwen are the latest Washington lobbyists to say their work for interests in the Ivory Coast has ended. 

Espy’s agricultural consulting firm AE Agritrade had signed a three-month contract worth at least $750,000 with the Cocoa and the Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. 

But the former congressman said he only worked on the contract for a little more than a month before suspending it in early February as the international community, including the Obama administration, criticized Gbabgo repeatedly for not leaving the presidency.

“I have voluntarily suspended it,” Espy said. “Events are spiraling rapidly. It is very difficult to work in that context.”

Espy, who was also Agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration, said he received the agreed upon first payment of $400,00 for his work on the contract. 

McEwen, the other former lawmaker, signed a three-month, $75,000 contract with the embassy for the Ivory Coast, Justice Department records show. 

“I brought my efforts to see if we could bring about a peaceful agreement between the two parties,” McEwen said. “I performed my responsibilities under the contract.”

Having worked on the contract in December and January, McEwen said the agreement has since ended, but he would not explain why or divulge more details about his lobbying work for the embassy.

According to Justice Department records, McEwen was coordinating his work with the country’s then-ambassador, Charles Koffi, who sided with Gbabgo in his dispute over the election results.   

Espy said he did lobby in favor of Gbabgo, though his work was primarily in support of the country’s cocoa farmers. The former lawmaker said he represented Gbabgo’s position that the elections were fraudulent in meetings with officials at the CIA, the United Nations, several foreign ambassadors and at least one member of Congress in his lobbying campaign.

“We talked about cocoa, but that could not be separated from the situation there. I got the same response. That is why I felt it was necessary to suspend the contract,” Espy said.

Despite the lobbying help, the situation in the Ivory Coast continues to worsen. The White House released a statement this week condemning recent violence in the country.

Espy said he is monitoring the situation in the Ivory Coast every day. The African country is the largest producer of cocoa in the world, but due to international disapproval of Gbabgo’s actions, the crop is not making its way out of the Ivory Coast.

“They have no way to sell it. No one will buy it. There are no banks that will give loans to buy it. It is just rotting in their own fields and farms,” Espy said. “The consequence is stark poverty for the farmers.”

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