Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 9


“Ed, could I chat with you for a moment?”

He caught me looking down at my cold, soggy Eggs Benedict. That I’m not going to miss, I thought, unlike the tawny beauty sitting next to me. I took one long, last look at her as I turned to get out of my chair.

I’d had more luck than usual this morning, as Harry’s lead defense guy, Scott Suddaford, had caught me coming in the door, with a quick question about DOD Approps. He’d been chatting with my tablemate, fellow House staffer Mary Anne Corrigan, at the time and, well, I hadn’t seen any reason to move on. Now, though, it was time for Harry and me to play out our little game.

Ignoring Uncle Harry for just a moment, I said, “Delightful to meet you, Mary Anne. I hope we can catch up again soon.” She smiled up at me in that dazzling way I was already learning to like.

Ah, what better way could there be to start a long and tedious day than with a 7:30 a.m. fundraiser? Fundraising never stops in Washington, and as more and more of them get scheduled, they more and more often pop up in the early morning hours. For me especially, let in free to any of Harry’s fundraisers I wanted to go to, there was seldom anything pleasant about hanging out with a bunch of suits, mostly from the defense industries, first thing in the morning, when they were all ‘on’ and I was still shaking the sleep out of my eyes. But I’d worked it out with Harry in advance, since Sen. Joseph Belkin was also attending this event, that we would corner him to begin the process of nailing down his support for our MNNA amendment. Getting to sit with Mary Anne for 45 minutes was just a bonus.

Following Harry over toward the head table, I saw Belkin standing by his chair, waiting. He must have tried to get away, I thought, and Harry must have stopped him. Good thing – this was my best shot at the guy without going through the Gates of Hell, better known as Raymonda Clayton, ex-girlfriend extraordinaire. I knew that avoiding her was the only way I was going to get Belkin on board.

Belkin recognized me in that special way that politicians have, as someone he’d met more than once but not someone important enough to remember. As he glanced down to my name tag, I said, “Ed Matthews.” I slept with your Foreign Ops staff director for several years. “From Michael McPherson & Associates.”

“Yes, of course, Ed, so good to see you,” he said, smiling but only a little. I had him a little bit confused, looking as if my introduction didn’t match up with the scraps of me buried in his memory. With Harry to hide behind, I took that as a good thing.

“As I was telling you, Joseph,” Harry said, leaning in to Belkin and taking his arm, “Ed has a very important issue that I suggested he talk with you about.” He looked over at me, and nodded.

“Yes, sir,” I responded quietly, just for the three of us, “it’s a request from our ally, the United Arab Emirates, to be added to the list of Major Non-NATO Allies.”

Belkin looked at Harry quizzically.

Harry said, “We’ll have to discuss it when we have time in Paris.”

What the fuck?

He continued, “It’s too bad you have to rush now, Joseph, but this is a very important issue. You need to be briefed, and Ed here is the man to walk you through the entire procedure.”

“Well, uh, that sounds good,” Belkin replied. “We’ll catch up in Paris, then, during the Air Show?”

The Air Show? The biennial Paris Air Show, held in late June, was one of the world’s leading arms bazaars and absolutely the biggest boondoggle any Congressman could take. Not only was I not planning to go to the Air Show, not only was every flight to Paris that week and every hotel room within a 50-mile radius booked by now, but the Air Show came dead in the middle of my busiest month, June, when the House State/Foreign Operations Subcommittee bill was always moving, and the Senate bill often was. I couldn’t possibly go to the Air Show.

“Yes, we will indeed, right, Ed?” Harry replied, pointing to me.

I was stuck. “Yes, Senator,” you sonofabitch, “we can talk then.”

As Belkin headed for the door, Harry leaned closer. “It’s too crowded here to have that kind of conversation.”

I took his arm and smiled for anyone who might be looking before quietly tearing into him. “Jesus, Harry, I can’t just run off to Paris. It’s June – the bills are moving. What am I going to tell Michael? Hell, what am I going to tell Charlotte?”

“She should come along after we’re done,” he responded, “it’s a wonderful time to see Paris – June? Perfect in Paris.” He smiled.

“Gimme a break, Harry – in the middle of June?” It was bad enough I’d be heading to Paris in June, but there’s no way that Charlotte and I could make it a vacation: it would be at least as hard for her to get out of town then, if not more so since she didn’t have a business reason to be there.

So I’d be alone in the world’s most romantic city, right when it’s the most … romantic.

“Michael will be fine with it too, it’s one of his clients and the only way to get this amendment you’re looking for,” he continued. “Besides, I have a friend coming who needs a traveling companion. I think you met her? Mary Anne Corrigan?”

I turned to look at the table, and saw Mary Anne leaning forward, telling a story while the men surrounding her sat rapt in attention, some maybe even listening to her. Scott Suddaford, though, he was looking directly at us. So he’d set this up, and she didn’t know. Goddammit, I thought, I’ve been had.

“Son,” Harry said, making me cringe – it was never good when Harry called me ‘son.’ “I need your help on this one, and you’ve asked for mine. I think it’s only fair, don’t you? After all I’ve done?”

* * *

“The budget is a joke, you know that. There’s no way the Committee will fund foreign aid levels like that.” Roger was in lecture mode, standing by his window, looking out to see who might be approaching the rear door of Dirksen, the one facing Union Station. I noticed the sag in his pants, his shirttail hanging down below the top of his pants. For all he looked a sloppy dresser, though, it was a simple fact that nothing ever looked good on him. “There’s far too much money in the President’s Request, and we’re deeply cutting it. So your goal has to be protecting those levels for your clients.”

I’d been in and out of Roger’s office since the beginning of the year, but this was my first scheduled meeting with him, the one where we’d reviewed the clients and I’d tell him what I needed. I always saved Roger for the last of these meeting, for one simple reason: he was the guy I needed to give me things I just couldn’t get from anyone else.

So far, I’ve been doing okay, I thought as I looked at him skeptically. At least this year it’s not like I’m desperate, just needy.

Roger, hands in his pocket, paused in his ramble. My turn. “Great, so our big selling point for the year is to tell the clients, ‘hire Michael McPherson and he’ll get you less than the President wants.’” I laughed.

Roger turned, blinked several times, and peered at me through narrowed eyes. We were friends, so I could razz him, but he was Michael’s friend too, having worked closely with him when Michael was at State and Roger staff director to a Senate subcommittee overseeing State Department funding. He knew from many long nights with Michael what a lousy business this was, how clueless and unreasonable the clients could be, and how hard it was just to stand in place. So he was vulnerable to this, and he bit.

First, though, he was going to make me wait. His mouth twitched, one of the more unappealing ‘tells’ in Washington, and I saw a glimmer in his eyes that said he was caving just as he turned back to look out the window. A heavy sigh, his slim shoulders rising slowly on the inhale before a long, slow exhale. Jeez, I caught myself thinking, the theatrics these people put me through. Turning back to me, hands still in his pockets, he looked to the door as if hoping someone would arrive to rescue him – or maybe that I would take the hint and leave. Another pause. “So what do you want? What’s the ask?”

Well, finally, we were getting to the point. “Okay, so let’s start by leaving aside Koliba, right?”

He snorted, walking to his desk and sitting down. Reaching to his right into a drawer, he drew out a legal pad and peered at me over his glasses. “Sure.” He shook his head as he looked down to scratch out a note on the page.

“So there’s the UAE thing. We need …”

“The UAE ... thing?” he asked, looking up again, somehow sounding out the italics.

“Yeah, you know, MNNA, Major Non-NATO Ally, for Chrissakes.” I shook my head; this wasn’t something I should have to go through with him. “What, like, you forgot?”

“The prime subcontractor of the equipment to be provided under MNNA, the ARCHON, is Coherence Electronics, based, you may recall,” pausing for effect, peering some more – he was killing me with the peering – “in Lansing, Michigan, and made up mostly of constituents of the Honorable Senator Francis T. Johnson.” He pushed his glasses back up his nose and, leaning back, put his pen down. Oops. I’d forgotten, this was a constituent issue.

“Yes, yes, you’re right, and Coherence’s CEO, Robert Chester, is also campaign chairman for the Honorable Senator in the last campaign, I know, I know,” God, I didn’t need this, and from Roger of all people. “What, you think I don’t take this seriously?”

“I’m not sure you take anything seriously any more.” Ouch, I thought.

Blinking furiously, Roger opened his center drawer and drew out a pack of Marlboros and a box of safety matches. Shit, I thought, I’ve really pissed him off; Roger only smoked when there was something wrong. And I’d never seen him smoke in his office.

I waited for him to pull out a cigarette and light it. Throughout, he watched me, glancing down at his cigarette only long enough to light it. I was surprised that he could find the tip through all the blinking. I thought, too, that maybe he was right, at least about me.

Truth be told, Roger was critical to our getting the UAE business, at least based on scattered comments that Michael and Weller had exchanged with me over the last year or so. It would have made sense: for all Coherence might have been a constituent, Sen. Johnson could never have gotten the MNNA amendment through on his own. So maybe he’d outsourced it, convincing Coherence that the UAE needed a lobbyist to make this work. It made sense, in that crazy way that only applies in Washington.

But I’d never know for sure, and was pretty certain I didn’t want to.

“Okay, so, to begin again, our first priority is the MNNA amendment for the United Arab Emirates.” I paused, and made a face at him as if to say, ‘better?’ He snorted, which I took as a ‘yes.’ “I’m working with Sen. Fuller” – I always called Harry ‘Sen. Fuller’ when talking to anyone outside the company – “to convince Sen. Belkin to offer the amendment in the bill.” I decided to leave out the Paris part; I was still coming to grips with it in my own mind, and didn’t need Roger giving me shit.

“Belkin?” he asked, laughing. “Raymonda’s Belkin?”

Oops. I’d forgotten: he knew me and Raymonda in the ‘good old days’ when we were dating, and the miserable ones when it was falling apart.

“Yes,” I replied. “Now maybe you can understand my attitude. Raymonda’s going to rip me a new one when she finds out.”

Roger laughed, exhaling a lungload of smoke at me. “She doesn’t know?” Coughing through his laughter, he opened his drawer again and drew out his ashtray. Holding the cigarette loosely in his fingers, he tapped it precisely on the corner, once, twice. I sat quietly and waited. “You are so dead meat,” he said, smiling at me.

“Like I don’t know that?” I asked him. He was right, she was absolutely going to kill me when I told her that her boss was going to help me. But there was nothing I could do about that, and I didn’t need his ragging me about it. “What are you busting my balls for?”

Leaning his head back, he inhaled deeply, and slowly released a long trail of smoke. “Because at some point,” pausing here for another inhale, “we’re going to end up talking about Koliba.” Another long pause for effect, and this time I didn’t have anything to say.

He was right, of course, I couldn’t figure out the Koliba thing without him. I had an idea, but I needed to lead up to it. So finally, putting on my best car-salesman voice, I said, “Yes, but just for you, today only, I’m willing to let you throw me out of the room if you don’t like what I have to say.”

That got a rise out of him, leaning his head back to cough out a wet, hacking laugh. Jesus, he’d been smoking way too much recently. But at least I’d finally gotten him laughing with me, not at me. Maybe I could get somewhere.

* * *

About 30 minutes later, once we’d haggled our way through the strategy on the MNNA amendment, and a first cut at the Dungan – he’d agreed to look at some report language – it was time. It had all come with a tremendous amount of whining and complaining about my asking for too much, my not realizing what a tremendous amount I was making him carry, my failure to recognize that he needed to be able to accomplish a few things for other people, including constituents, yutta yutta yutta, blah blah blah. But that was a standard part of the game, so I’d pretty much ignored it while pretending to be sympathetic.

It was time to try for something that might keep Koliba and his cronies happy. When Tom and Michael had agreed to convince Gangaran to visit Washington for the reception I’d taken Eleanor to, it was in exchange for me coming up with something legislative that we could give Koliba to show we were accomplishing something. I had developed an idea that just might work. It was totally out of the box, but those were often the best kind. It was also something that we could probably sneak through because it wouldn’t be written specifically for Koliba, just something he could benefit from if Golongo stopped screwing around with civil liberties.

“Okay, so that leaves Koliba,” I began. Roger’s blinked several times in rapid succession, and then his face took on a blank look, another tell, his standard approach when he was preparing to blow someone out of the water. I waited for just a moment, and continued, “And you’re obviously not going to do anything to help him, so we’re done.”

Roger waited, watching me. We both sat still, neither moving, each waiting for the other to go first. Roger left eye twitched, several times. “That’s it?”

“Well, look, I know your boss won’t stick his neck out for a dictator, so I’m not stupid enough to ask you to do something for Koliba.” He looked somewhat relieved, but still guarded – he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. “We’ll have report language to fight against, especially on the House side, but I’m not asking for help on this one. Like I told Michael, ‘we’re done, we’re fucked.’ Michael’s fucked.”

Roger leaned forward at this, looking me over. “That’s what you’ve got? ’We’re fucked?’ No ideas on how to move anything?” He tapped the cigarette twice more on that same corner of the ashtray. “You guys never give up, at least not this early in the year. You got nothing?”

“Well, shit,” I said, looking off to my left out the window, trying to look simultaneously skeptical and put upon, like it was Roger’s fault for bringing it up, “I’ve got an idea.”

Now it was Roger’s turn to look put upon. With his free hand, he futzed with his glasses, straightening them unnecessarily. Two blinks. “Ahh, an idea. Just came to you, no doubt.”

“No, it didn’t. And it helps all of Africa” – one of Roger’s weak spots – “and not just Koliba. But it may be too nuts to use.”

“I’ll bite.”

“It’s a simple amendment – and it’s good for the environment.” Roger looked skeptical. “No, seriously, it’s actually sort of good for the environment.”

“Oh, well,” he jumped in, leaning forward, “if it’s ‘actually sort of,’ then that’s different.”

One of the problems with winging a meeting like this was that I always ended up saying something like that. I grimaced. “Look, give me a second to explain. Africa never gets anything for military aid, right?” Roger blinked, just once this time. He was giving me a chance. “And one of the many ways in which the Africans are getting screwed is overfishing off the coasts, European and Asian factory ships sucking all the fish out of African waters. And they can’t do anything about it; they have virtually no navies.”

“So you want us to give Koliba a navy.”

“No, not give him a navy.” I shook my head, and then stopped. “Well, yes, but the amendment’s not for Koliba, it’s for African countries. If Koliba shapes up, he’ll get some when they finally dole it out. If not, it’s not our fault – we set aside the money.”

“So what are we doing?”

“We earmark $15 million for coastal fisheries protection in Africa.” I smiled at him. “Your boss should like that – he’s always worried about the Georges Banks, and overfishing in general. You worry that the Africans get screwed every which way from Sunday. Here’s somewhere you can both do about it.”

“Fisheries? How is that defense spending?”

“Every country in the region has their Navy, such as it is, running coastal protection – so it’s military spending. Everybody agrees that the region’s being stripped of fish, including all the enviros – so you don’t have them breathing down your neck for putting more guns into Africa. And if past foreign aid earmarks are any precedent, the Pentagon will likely squawk like crazy while you’re moving the bill, but in the end they’ll swallow it because you’re not taking money away, you’re just shifting it. Besides, since these navies are so pitiful, the Pentagon will be able to use the money to sell some of their retired Navy ships. Navy shipyards will do maintenance and repair work on them, sucking up half the cash, and the Africans will think they’re getting serious ‘warships,’ since they come from the Yew-nited States Navy.”

“The enviros are going to buy this?”

“Totally.” I grinned; this was the real trick to the whole idea. “I Googled looking for environmental problems in Africa, and found a report a couple years back by some guy at UC Berkeley – said the EU fishing fleets, especially Spain’s, are wiping out African fish stocks, leading to greater dependence on land animals – including endangered ones – for food. It’s perfect, something to wave at the State and DOD dorks when they lobby you on the bill. And if we make the focus the French instead of the Spanish, we’ve got pretty much the perfect amendment.”

Roger snorted; like most people in Congress, he loved to ding the French, not because of Iraq or any of the more recent stuff, but just because. “And Koliba’s navy?”

“Half the size of his neighbors, both of whom get all their military equipment from France, not us.” I smiled. “Koliba would love this money.”

Roger paused, staring at me. No blinking; he didn’t hate it, and he was thinking seriously about it, his mind racing, likely trying to find something wrong with the idea. Glancing down, he reached for the ashtray, crushing his cigarette daintily against the edge. and then emptying it in the wastebasket to the left of his desk, with a single bang against the edge of the basket. He opened the drawer, returning the ashtray to its proper place. Straightening, he settled deeply in his seat, pushing his glasses back against his nose and then crossing his hands. It was his traditional signal that our meeting was coming to a close.

As I began to gather up my papers, he said, “Where do you come up with this crap?”

* * *

“The talk to the State losers go well?” Michael was leaning back in the booth, lit cigar in one hand, full glass of some $125 Bordeaux in the other. He was awfully relaxed, considering the miserable dinner we had ahead of us.

Tonight was our once-a-year business dinner with Philip Galsworthy, my Senate Foreign Relations Committee contact from the majority staff. Philip’s occasional appearances with Kevin at our house for dinner were totally because of Kevin, not Philip, but I always needed to keep a close eye on him because he tended to attack our clients. Philip was one of those staffers who figured that any Third World country willing to waste a few hundred thousand on a lobbyist had to have something to hide, a condition made worse by the fact that he just plain hated Michael. I’ve never learned what it was that set them at odds, but it must have been major, because it was a grudge that never went away, and every year Philip seemed to set his sights on one of our luckless clients.

The good news was that Philip couldn’t resist fine wines and also couldn’t hold his alcohol, a bad combination for someone who gets lobbied. The more he drank, the more he talked. So every year, as if in penance for whatever he’d done, Michael dragged himself out for a lavish meal with Philip to sound him out, a ridiculously expensive dinner complete with outrageously priced French red wines. Michael and Philip would drink their way through three bottles or so, while I kept notes and drank just enough to avoid being pissed about missing out on the good stuff.

Hell, in some ways, it was just a long night of drinking with some food sprinkled in, because both Philip and Michael were drunk as lords by the end of the night. But it was always fun, because the moron – Philip, that is – gave away everything he planned.

At the moment, though, while waiting for Philip to arrive, I was drinking Pellegrino. Last thing I wanted to do was get ahead of him, even if it would take less than an hour for him to lap me.

“The talk went fine.” I’d spent a couple hours in the morning at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, explaining the lobbying business to this year’s class of Congressional Liaison Officers, the latest lambs to the slaughter, so to speak. No one ever understood less about Congress than the U.S. State Department, making it a classic no-win job for the poor bastards sent out to ‘liaise’ on the Department’s behalf. I always offered to speak, though, in case one of them might later move to a job more useful to me, something that happened every couple of years of so.

I shook my head. “As usual, they’re eager but clueless. The only ones who bugged me were two guys who couldn’t deal with the idea that Congress ‘interferes’ in foreign policy.”

“Hah!” Michael roared, with the kind of rapacious grin that would scare children and small animals. He raised his glass, and drank deeply. “They’ll be chewed up and spit out within a couple of weeks.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. In my mind’s eye, I could see one of them, a thin little weasel headed for the Asia Bureau. Just wouldn’t shut up about Presidential prerogatives. “I’m thinking of telling Peter Chase about one of them, so he can show the guy Congress’s role in the making of foreign policy.”

“Ha-ha-ha!” Michael, his round face turning a bright red, slapped the table, just as I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Sorry I’m late, gents. The Senator needed something immediately.” Philip stood looking down on us, a self-congratulatory grin on his face. “You know how it is.”

“No problem, Philip,” I said. Never Phil – God, he hated Phil.

“Looks like I’ve been missing some amusement.”

Michael, slightly out of breath and still chuckling over the thought of Peter tearing into a novice State Department lobbyist, pointed to me as he said, “He has a great idea.”

Sliding over so that Philip could join us, I recounted the story about my talk, the unfortunate questioner, and my plans for him. We both knew this was a great way to start the conversation, since Philip was a former FSO himself and, like the vast majority of former Department denizens now working on the Hill, he detested State and all it stood for. Not disliked, or disapproved of, or simply had problems with, but detested. It had something to do with the very concept of diplomacy, in which the whole point of your job was to reach agreement with people, not smash them into the dirt or otherwise defeat them every time you disagreed. Some people just weren’t made to be diplomatic, either because they were just naturally confrontational or, more often, because they thought that, while it was okay for people to disagree with them on occasion, in the end people should just have recognized that they were right. They generally got out of State as fast as they could, and many raced right to the Hill so they could ram their personal beliefs down the Department’s throat. Philip was one of those.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” Philip crowed. He’d poured himself a glass of wine immediately after sitting, and raised it in toast to me. “Send him to me! Really, send him to me!”

No way, I thought; I could be an asshole on occasion but I was never a dick. “Sure,” I said with a smile. Peter’s torments will be quite enough, thank you very much. I reached for my wine glass, and hid behind a long, slow sip while waiting for Michael to change the topic.

“So, Philip,” he began, picking up on my cue, “how are things looking for legislation this year? Going to get anything interesting through the Senate Floor?”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was notorious for its inability to get much of anything on foreign aid considered by the full Senate. Their minimalist legislative efforts seldom went anywhere, because every Administration from Clinton could count on the fact that the Appropriations Committee’s bill would include any essential foreign aid legislation, making the SFRC unnecessary. This year, with Chairman Biden running for President and thereby constantly on the road, there was even less than usual going on. But even that wouldn’t stop the Committee staff from trying, if nothing else so that at the end of the year they could beg the Appropriations Committee to sneak a few of their ideas into the appropriations bill.

“Well, the Committee isn’t that concerned about getting bills into law; we simply want to ensure that our policy prescriptions set the frame within which the funding is done. Especially on the most critical issues, like your charming Mr. Koliba.”

And so it began.

* * *

“Jesus, what a putz.”

It was two-and-a-half hours later, and Michael and I were outside the restaurant, watching Philip waddle back to his car. I was thinking how wonderful it would be if the Maryland State Police came across him driving home, and at the same time thinking I was going to have to give Michael a lift to his house. The man had a hollow leg, but we’d gone through four bottles of Bordeaux and I’d been holding back.

“Well, yeah, and the sky is blue. So how bad is it?”

“I don’t know, Michael,” I said. “I think you’re drunk as shit.”

He laughed. “Asshole. I mean Philip’s plan.”

Philip’s plan. Like you could even call it that. “It’s too easy. He has the Committee pass a bill prohibiting any U.S. government funds from being spent on Koliba next year, and sends it to the Floor. He thinks he can follow it up with provisions in each of the appropriations bills – Foreign Ops and the DOD bill. Problem is, as soon as his Committee approves a foreign aid bill with a provision prohibiting DOD spending, they’re absolutely begging for the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman to wipe up the floor with him: he’ll have violated every jurisdictional rule in the book. They’ll slap him so hard he won’t know what’s happening.

“Then, when we get to Approps, we just add exceptions,” I continued. “In Foreign Ops it’s the ‘other than NGOs’ exception” – non-governmental organizations, like CARE, Oxfam, and everyone else Angelina Jolie liked to hang out with – “that’s the only way they get economic aid now anyway. In DOD, we add a national security waiver, ‘except as determined to be in the national security by the President,’ or some such. Easy.” Too easy, in fact – I liked a challenge, and this was gonna be like shooting ducks in a barrel. I was actually kind of bummed; Philip, for all I disliked him, usually gave me some of my best strategic challenges.

Michael belched, one of those disgusting wet ones that come with too much booze. “That’s what I thought.” He looked over at me, blurry eyes seeming to look past my face. “But whaddo I know? I’m drunk as shit.”

My turn to laugh. I took Michael by the elbow. “C’mon, chief. I’ll drive you home, and catch a cab back. Gimme the keys.” I’d learned years ago that Michael would never take a cab back to Bethesda, but he’d let me drive him home in his car. With my cell phone, I could have a cab there waiting to bring me back downtown. Holding the door for Michael, I glanced at my watch; with a little luck, I’d be home in time for Jon Stewart.

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