Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 10

A couple of weeks later, I stopped by the offices of Rep. Toby Kelton again to see Alexis. I’d let some time go by since our first meeting, so she could settle in a little more before I actually asked for something I needed. Today, I needed something. Another test.

It was only a couple of minutes before I heard the door open behind me. Turning, I saw Alexis lean out. “Come on back,” she said with a smile.

Taking the door, I followed her through the dark cubby-like mini-hallway into the rear office, and followed her to her desk, one of the two by the long window facing the Capitol Building. Like all House offices, Rep. Kelton’s is hopelessly cramped, with this room that once served as a single office carved up into a tiny cubicle farm, three by two running down the center of the room, reached by clinging to the walls on either side as one steps over binders, piles of papers, boxes of correspondence and other paraphernalia.

She waited for a moment before getting the meeting going. “So what can I do for you?”

I smiled. Straight to business. “The Foreign Ops Bill.” The annual State/Foreign Aid Appropriations Bill, the one funding the year’s State Department and foreign aid funding. “The majority staff has completed a draft of the mark-up notes, and I think they’ve turned a copy over to the minority. I was curious if maybe I could Xerox a few copies for you in exchange for keeping one – once you land your copy.”

She laughed, leaning her head back and shaking it with a look of surprise. “And how am I supposed to get a copy?”

“Well, that depends,” I responded, and stopped. I sat still for a moment. “You’re not the type to kill a guy with a good idea, are you?”

She turned toward her desk, and began rifling through a pile of papers on her right. “This can’t be good,” she said, more to her desk than to me. She pulled out a folder and opened it. From where I sat, it looked like a list, perhaps of names.

I waited.

She turned to look at me. “Toby and I had a conversation about you, and we decided that you had one thing going for you.” She tilted her head with a quizzical look, and continued. “We talked about how, when I was back in the HFAC office, in that do-nothing job, Eleanor used to point something out to us: you always treated us like people, not doorknobs. You often asked for crazy things, but you always treated people with respect. Toby and I agreed that ought to count for something.”

I kind of shrugged, thinking once again that simple politeness, with a little drop of thoughtfulness, was one of those things nobody ever taught you in Lobbyist School but was a more powerful tool than just about anything else. People liked me because I was a nice guy. Who’d-a thought? A nice-guy lobbyist. “My momma done raised me good,” I drawled in my generally unconvincing southern accent.

She laughed again. “So go ahead.”

After a brief pause, I shot it all out, all at once, in a single breath. “You find the staff director, remind him you’re a rookie, bat your eyelashes, tell him you don’t even know how to read mark-up notes, bat your eyelashes some more, and say, ‘please’ with that big beautiful smile you’ve got. I assure you he’ll turn it over.”

Her eyes thinned. “You’ve got balls.”

“I said I’d never lie to you. From this guy, it’s the only way to get a copy – and you’re the only Subcommittee staffer who can pull it off.” I paused for a moment, to let that sink in. “You’ve seen him at the hearings, with your questions. You know it’s true. Maybe it sucks, but it’s true.”

She was still looking at me, eyes still lidded. At first she didn’t move, but after a moment, she turned to point at the office Xerox machine and said, “So you’re going to copy it on that thing? You crazy?”

I smiled. Xeroxing – the simplest way to earn your way into the heart of a Congressional staffer. Their offices are plagued with crotchety old copying machines, aged, broken-down beasts that can be trusted for a copy or two, but never for ten copies of a draft bill. “Kinko’s. 7th and D, NW. I’ll have it back within the hour.”

She laughed again, and turned back to the papers on her desk. “It’s true what they all say about you: you never leave a meeting without asking for something, and you’ve always got an answer.” Running her fingers down the sheet in the open folder, she looked just a little bit triumphant as she turned to me. “Looks like I’ll need six copies – no, wait, I need an extra one for the boss, don’t I?”

I nodded.

“I’ll call you when I have the notes.”

* * *

The Ambassador waited, seething in his chair, alternating stares between me and his staff. He had work to do, and he was being kept waiting.

Two members of his staff were already in the room, the DCM and the Second Secretary. Each sat silently in his chair, looking blankly around the room, trying to avoid looking at me, and surely avoiding the gaze of His Excellency. The DCM sat in his traditional chair, to the side of the Ambassador’s desk, while the younger diplomat was along the wall, off to my left and almost out of my vision.

I sat quietly in my place of honor, the chair directly in front of the Ambassador’s oversized desk, hands crossed over my notebook. While at Kinko’s xeroxing Alexis’s copies, I’d been able to confirm that the MNNA amendment was, as expected, not included in the mark-up notes. I decided to go straight to the Embassy and report the news, ripping that bandage off all at once rather than sitting around worrying about how the Ambassador would respond. With luck, I had thought, he might not even be there.

I had found on arrival at the Embassy that the Ambassador was indeed in his office and, after I had given the DCM a copy of the bill and informed him that the UAE’s MNNA amendment was nowhere to be found, was told he wanted to see me. Now, along with the others, I waited.

The Ambassador muttered something incomprehensible in Arabic to his senior advisor, to which the DCM responded, “Mish mumkin.” ‘Impossible,’ I thought, what would be impossible? The First Secretary too scared to come in? Caught on a phone call? Didn’t hear about the meeting? Now that would have been impossible; the Ambassador had screamed into the phone and then, when his secretary came into the room, screamed at her too, demanding that the staff come to his office. They’d probably heard him in the building next door.

I wasn’t surprised by the circumstances, but not happy about it either. Ever since Weller had promised the Ambassador that our amendment would be in the House bill, I’d known we were in for trouble when it didn’t show up. But one can never tell what form client trouble will take, with options ranging from threats of a firing (the least likely case here, since the Minister of Defense had hired us, not the Ambassador); rabid reporting by cable back to the Government about our utter incompetence as lobbyists (a virtual certainty, often even when we succeeded); or simply a dressing down and demand that we do better next time. It looked like I was in for the full treatment, the whole “you FAILED, you infidel,” probably minus any direct reference to the infidel part, but implied in there somehow I was certain.

The door opened again, and, with an “Asef, Your Excellency,” an ‘I’m sorry,’ the First Secretary made his entrance. Glancing at me with the slightest smile playing on his lips, he walked past the Second Secretary to take one empty chair, closer to the Ambassador without being as close as the number two, the Deputy Chief of Mission. Even in the simplest meetings, rank and privilege rule in this world.

“Mr. Matthews has reported,” the Ambassador began, looking balefully at me while speaking to his staff, “on the failure of his company to secure the Major Non-NATO Ally legislation in the House appropriations bill. This legislation is exceedingly important to our country, and as you all know, it is a personal priority of the Minister of Defense and his staff. Mr. Matthews has come to explain to us how this failure has occurred and what they intend to do.”

“Thank you, Mr. Ambassador,” I began. It’s a very good idea to always begin a conversation with a Middle Eastern Ambassador by thanking him, regardless of what he’s just said to you. “I must say, though, sir, that with all due respect we have not failed at this point.”

Rising to his feet, he slammed his open palm on the desk. “WHAT?”

Oops. It’s also a very good idea to never tell a Middle East Ambassador that he’s wrong. Never, ever.

He turned to the DCM, yelling, “Didn’t Mr. Wellington tell us right here that their entire plan was to get this amendment in the House bill? Did he not? Did he?”

“Of course, Excellency.” Mr. Asfiki shook his head. “We were right in this room, as was Mr. Matthews.”

“You see?” the Ambassador said to me, his right hand extended toward the DCM. “You see? You have no explanation other than that? Nothing?”

“My apologies, sir,” I replied, “I did not mean to imply that Mr. Wellington did not say that to you. You are correct, he did.”

From the corner of my eye, I could see the Second Secretary furiously scribbling. This would make a wonderful memo back to the Palace.

“So he LIED to me? Mr. Wellington was lying, is that it?”

“No, sir, he would never lie to Your Excellency.”

“So, what then, he just didn’t know what he was saying then, that’s it?” Coming out from behind the desk, he came right over to my chair, looming over me. This was the full show. “So he came here to talk to me without knowing that he could not do this?”

“Well, sir…”

“You know how important this is to our country. We are a critical ally of the United States in the region, and we are among the region’s most helpful countries to the United States in terms of defense matters. If we had known that you could not accomplish this important mission,” he continued, spinning around and heading back behind his desk, “I would have undertaken the effort myself without your supposed assistance.”

Ah, so there we were at the nub of the meeting, actually a good ten or fifteen minutes sooner than I’d expected: this is Wellington’s failure, our company’s failure, not the Ambassador’s failure. And everyone else was in the room to hear, and to report to officials back home, that it was everyone’s failure but the Ambassador’s. The DCM would call one of his cousins in the royal family, and the First Secretary his senior Foreign Ministry officials, while the Second Secretary would write a long and detailed memorandum that all of them would send to every source they could think of. Oy.

“Now, instead,” he said, “I must find a way to convince America’s President and the Secretary of State that they must find another way, because Mr. Wellington and Michael McPherson & Associates have failed to win this legislation.”

Oh, God, just what we need, I thought, the State Department getting ragged over this by an incompetent Ambassador. We’ll have to push him off that.

“But Mr. Ambassador, we will be able to …”

“You will be able to what? You have done nothing so far. You have accomplished nothing. Yet you wish for us to allow you to pursue the effort on your own? Is that it?”

“Mr. Ambassador, Wellington has assured me …”

“Mr. Wellington, yes, and where is Mr. Wellington this afternoon?”

Goddammit. I’d told myself not to mention him, but it just slipped out. Now I’d have to go through the ‘if only he were here’ shtick I’d been hoping to duck.

“Well, as you know, Mr. Ambassador…”

“Yes, Mr. Asfiki,” he said, turning to his cousin, “as I know so very well, he is in Geneva at this time and not here to assist our country.”

“Sir, really, it isn’t like that…”

Mr. Asfiki drew his breath in quickly. Yeah, you’re right, bud, I thought, I put my dick in a wringer this time.

WHAT!” the Ambassador shouted again. “I suppose that I am lying now, is that it, Mr. Matthews?”

* * *

Two hours later, I sat in a small bar a few blocks from the UAE Embassy. It was still relatively early in the day, but I needed the scotch and water that Fawzi had procured. After leaving the Embassy, I’d called him on my cell and we’d met up here. As military attaché responding to the Defense Minister, he hadn’t been invited to the screamfest, and we were meeting for a debrief.

“I am sorry, my friend.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Colonel,” I replied. Fawzi looked at me with his sad face, the one where his omnipresent smirk was almost hidden away. A cloud of smoke oozed from his nose and worked its way up along the sides of his face. “It’s Wellington who got me into this, as you know.”

Fawzi laughed, and, picking a tiny bit of tobacco from his teeth, responded in his smoky, rasping voice, “Yes, I have already spoken to him this evening. When you brought my copy of the bill, and told me that you were unwilling to wake him, I decided that someone needed to ruin his baby sleep. I couldn’t resist.” He smiled broadly now; Wellington has long complained about how terribly he sleeps when he travels, and being woken at 2:00 in the morning would mean he was up the rest of the night. Fawzi had traveled with him to Europe and the Gulf many times, so he surely knew this.

“Perhaps next time he will listen to your strategy,” he continued, releasing a long, slow stream of smoke, his grayish, toothy smile barely visible in the cloud.

“Oh, I doubt it very much, Colonel,” I responded with a smile. “But I appreciate your willingness to test his resolve.”

“So the Ambassador is satisfied now?” he asked, getting to the point of my return visit.

“Yes, sir,” I laughed quietly at the memory. Another 45 minutes of failure and disaster, doom and gloom, and all our fault. If only the Embassy had been allowed to do this without our interference, etc., etc. “The blame has been very clearly placed on us, and by now the Second Secretary is working diligently on the memo that will detail this, and the rest of them are making calls home to make the point as well.”

“Well, I called the Minister immediately after you left earlier, of course,” he said. He picked at another bit of tobacco, while tapping with his other thumb on the unfiltered Gauloise, as if to make it stop. “His Excellency asked me to express his personal appreciation for your work.”

“Thank you, sir,” I replied, warming up a little. A wonderfully thoughtful guy, the Minister. “Good of him to remember me.”

“Don’t be silly. He also expressed his appreciation for your willingness to take the blame for Wellington while he is traveling for us.”

Traveling for you? That was news to me. I wondered what his contract extended to that would bring him to Geneva. “It was nothing, Colonel. Besides, my friend Wellington might have had more difficulty sitting through the Ambassador’s performance” – at which Fawzi laughed in mid-drag, spraying a lungful of fetid smoke in my face – “depriving him of the opportunity to fully vent his anger. So perhaps this way is better for all of us.”

It took Fawzi a few moments to recover from his coughing fit, and his furious nodding in agreement with me probably didn’t help. “You are so very right,” he finally said, coughing slightly again, “you are right. Tomorrow morning I will see the Ambassador and will get a better sense of it. But I am sure you are right.”

* * *

“Mr. Chairman, I would like to review that report language if I could, as well as the later report language on refugees from Famagusta.”

It was Rep. Kelton, Alexis’s boss, chiming in right on cue to ask if he could review draft report language on Greece and Famagusta before the draft report was published. This was the favor he’d promised to Michael. Alexis had stepped up and crouched behind him at the Members’ table just as that section of the bill was being closed, and slipped him a note asking that he make the request. For a rookie, she was a damned fast learner – her timing so far in this mark-up was quite impressive.

The trick with Appropriations Subcommittee mark-ups was that they didn’t work off a copy of the actual bill and report, but off ‘mark-up notes,’ the semi-official terms for a set of xeroxed pages that provide precious little detail on what the Committee was actually proposing. For provisions included in the bill from year to year, that was fine, but for the new stuff, and especially for the stuff we lobbyists were sneaking into the bill, it was critical that someone reviewed the actual text of what was going in before the draft was ‘written’ – also a lie, since it had been written and pre-printed a month or so before, but was hidden in the Chairman’s office. No Chairman would be so stupid as to go into a mark-up without knowing precisely what he or she wanted to come out with, but that, of course, didn’t mean they actually had to share it with everyone in the room.

On the one hand, you had to look at it from the Chairman’s point of view. If they circulated the text in advance, we lobbyists, piranhas that we were, would all try to rewrite the whole freaking bill. Only by drafting (and hiding) the text ahead of time could they have any semblance of control over the final product.

On the other hand, I was getting paid by my boss – and we the company by our clients – to put exactly what we want into the bill, word for word. So it was a tug of war.

The best way to be sure you’d won was to have a Subcommittee member ask to review the text before the report went to the full Committee. Not an easy thing to do, since most of the Members didn’t even know what was in the bill, let alone what they were being asked to ‘review’ – i.e., to have their staffs review.

In this case, Michael had gone to Kelton directly; he’d caught him in the hall on his way to a House Floor vote, another of the better lobbyist tricks of the trade.

“I’m sure the staff will be able to accommodate that on the Greece language,” the Chairman responded from the end of the long oblong table. Smart answer: we’ll go along, but only on the Greece language, not the whole report. Even then, all they’d let her do would be to look at the language, not make a photocopy of it – but with the original language I’d handed to her to compare it against, that would be good enough. Not that it was a big deal; we mainly wanted to be sure they hadn’t spelled Famagusta with two gs or do anything else that would give the client a reason to be pissed off.

Alexis, sitting directly behind Kelton, glanced up at me. I smiled ever so slightly and nodded imperceptibly. She looked away, and waited.

“That will be fine, Mr. Chairman,” Rep. Kelton responded. “I appreciate your willingness to accommodate my concerns.”

Ever so polite, these meetings. There was always an undercurrent of tremendous tension, a sense of foreboding among most of us in the room, that something would certainly go terribly, terribly wrong, but the discussions were – most often – the very essence of civility. Very few junior members of the House got onto the Appropriations Committee, along with very few firebrands – the appropriators were generally smarter, more substantive, and politically more savvy than their peers. They were being put in control of the money, after all, and their votes shaped the most important legislation the government passed every year: how much did we spend, and who did we spend it on? Unlike most other bills the appropriations bills had to pass every year, because if they didn’t, the agencies they funded would shut down. As a result, the leadership of both parties had always been careful about who they put on Appropriations, and how much they made people go through before they got there. It didn’t always work: convicted felon Duke Cunningham ended up on Approps, to name but one. But they tried.

“Let’s move on to the Agency for International Development section of the bill,” the Chairman said, and countless pages turned in unison as Members, staff and lobbyists all turned the page at the same time.

* * *

Sitting in my office later that night, I reached deep into my bottom left-hand drawer for the Johnny Walker Black I kept stashed away. Charlotte had told me she would be working late again, a Committee hearing coming up soon or some such, so I figured I might as well get some work done before heading back to our empty apartment. I poured myself a double or so, dropped in a couple ice cubes from my water glass and then added a little of the water. Sacrilege, I thought, adding water to Johnny Walker Black, but I didn’t care; it was my drink.

I’d been reading and editing some of the weekly reports, the long missives to our clients that detailed every critical – or even vaguely interesting – bit of news from that week in the Congress. Some weeks we had to hunt for news, a Budget Committee hearing on the defense portions of the Budget, for example, which had zero impact on our clients but provided filler when nothing else was going on. At other times, when the foreign aid committees were active, identical Budget Committee hearings went ignored – we didn’t need them. The reports were long, tedious and scarcely readable, but they proved that we were out there, keeping the client’s interests in mind, watching out for the bad stuff, promoting the good, so we prepared them religiously.

I’d just finished the report for the Dungan, which I had cobbled together from the other reports that Michelle had prepared, adding in a couple of small tidbits specific to the client. I didn’t usually add a whole lot to these reports, as Michelle was actually a pretty good writer. I gave extra attention to the Dungan report, though, in part because I was writing them for two audiences: for Bao and Charlie, but also for Kincaid and Hendrickson. On the one hand, I tried keeping the writing relatively simple, and thus easily translatable to Bao, and on the other I needed to demonstrate enough sophistication that we’d be impressing our lawyer friends.

The heavy editing done, I could afford the drink. We were far enough into the year, and were doing pretty well in getting what we needed for the clients, but I needed to walk through it all carefully to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d forgotten, or unforeseen obstacles in the weeks and months ahead. It was still a guessing game, but the guesses are far more informed this late in the year than when you’re mapping everything out in January.

As of this point, we had the strategy for our UAE amendment in hand: use Belkin to get it into the Senate bill for us, and use Will Richardson to make sure it survived Conference at the end of the year. I had no idea yet if Sen. Belkin would agree to do it, but couldn’t move until Uncle Harry got me in front of him in Paris. Paris, I thought, what a crazy mess that’s going to be.

The whole Koliba gig was where one would expect it, with everyone on the Hill excoriating the guy, saying all kinds of terrible stuff about him, but so far the Committees were doing nothing more than the standard ineffectual report language about human rights. We’d scoped out the most serious attack, the Senate-side prohibition amendment Philip Galsworthy and Franklin Wallingford were pushing, and were positioned to defeat that one outright.

I sat back and allowed myself a broad grin. Beating those two idiots looked like it was going to be our biggest victory of the year, since the real business of Washington lobbying was more often stopping people from screwing you than about doing something positive for your clients. Getting someone some extra money was always nice; but stopping the other side from taking away every dime the President was planning to give them, that was a serious victory.

In addition to all that, I’d even sold my Africa military aid amendment, the $15 million earmark, which would be hidden in plain sight in the Senate Foreign Ops bill. Another win for Koliba, when everyone thought they were screwing him. I was actually getting a lot done this year, more than I’d expected.

Holding tight to my scotch, I stood up and, leaning against the window, looked down to watch the traffic rolling along Connecticut Avenue. This time of night on days when Congress was still in session, there was still a lot of traffic, even at 9:00 p.m. But the city ebbed and flowed with the presence of the Congress, lobbyists and their minions scattered in offices well into the evenings, watching late Floor debates, follow up on meetings, prepping the next day’s agendas. Who out there, I wondered, is working against us? There was always someone on the other side of every issue, working their own brand of magic to undo everything I’d spent my time on. It was a bad way for a superpower to run foreign policy, I had to admit; hell, it was a bad way to run government, dueling lobbyists taking money in exchange for shaping, or reshaping, the policies and programs of the U.S. Government. It was innate to the system, though, so deeply ingrained that I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

That blue Cadillac, maybe that was someone from Shaddock Mills. No, more likely the gray Mercedes, or even the Beemer convertible; those bastards made serious money. And that Volvo station wagon, the beige one with the banged-up hood, that one was probably a human rights weenie who hated Koliba with all his might.

Laughing, I turned back to my desk. Three clients done; that left my report language on the Dungan, the easiest work we had all year. There was very little going on in the open to this point, but there seemed to be lots behind the scenes: I’d gotten a call from Will Richardson that, after he’d dropped my one-minute into the Record, he’d also gotten a call from the Vice President’s office, a friendlier one than Kevin had gotten but still enough to make him notice. He was pretty annoyed with me, because no one in Congress liked showing up on Cheney’s radar – no one knew what that meant and how deep the radar might penetrate. But in the end he’d shrugged it off.

So far, though, while I had talked to some people about report language, I hadn’t been trying very hard because I hadn’t yet figured out who was who in this fight and what strategy was going to be best. Two calls coming out of Cheney’s office, the nation’s official black hole, didn’t tell me much. Not that I was worried – I could do report language with my eyes closed, and with as inoffensive a client as the Dungan knew I could sneak something through somewhere. Maybe too easily, I thought, but that’s what makes the business fun.

I smiled to myself and, rising from the desk, reached for my coat.

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