CONGRESS' SUPPOSED BLUE-RIBBON Sept. 11 review panel has yet to have its first meeting, but already commission chair Henry Kissinger and vice chair George Mitchell have resigned rather than disclose their business clients. However, attorney and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, appointed to the panel last week, promises to reveal his client list and sees no conflicts between the panel job and his work for a Seattle law firm that sells political clout.
"I'm perfectly happy to disclose the people I have worked for," Gorton said this week, "though it won't be a very long list. I don't have a lot of clients." Asked who they were, Gorton said, "I'm not going to do that off the top of my head, but I've already asked my secretary to put a list together."
His firm's clients, Seattle Weekly has learned, include a China company sanctioned by the United States for selling missiles to Iraq and a Somali warlord, accused of war crimes, who was scheduled to appear at a dinner with Gorton here in September but failed to show.
A U.S. senator for 18 years until his 2000 defeat by Democrat Maria Cantwell, Gorton joined the law firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds in April 2001. He was named to the 10-member review commission last week by his longtime former Senate ally and embattled incoming majority leader Trent Lott (whose own political crisis—after expressing fondness for the old days of segregation—overshadowed the panel's appointments and resignations). Some families of Sept. 11 victims immediately questioned just how fearlessly Gorton would delve into 9/11 security breakdowns. Would he be hesitant to probe failures of the airline industry or lapses by commercial plane-maker Boeing, a longtime campaign bankroller?
Says a slightly irritated Gorton: "I have never represented Boeing as a U.S. senator. The airlines and Boeing in my view are irrelevant [to the panel's review]. They are not intelligence agencies, not part of the government, and are not responsible for the terror attacks. Much of our job will be to [review] what's already been done—the work of the joint Senate and House Intelligence Committee . . . and how independent government agencies didn't relate well to one another."
THOUGH THE WHITE House and Democrats have differed over whether the Sept. 11 panelists should have to disclose their private business clients, the Congressional Research Service says established policy calls for identifying those who paid fees of more than $5,000 in the past two years. Former Secretary of State Kissinger resigned last Friday rather than reveal the beneficiaries of his high-powered consulting service, Kissinger Associates. (Boeing is thought to be among his clients.) Mitchell, former senate Democratic majority leader, quit earlier last week saying he didn't have time for the panel and indicating he opposed disclosing his law-client list.
Gorton says his own list isn't that sensitive. He serves "of counsel," which means non-partner, at the 400-attorney Preston Gates law firm, which rakes in millions annually as one of the nation's top political lobbying firms. Gorton represents clients involved in energy, transportation, and federal-policy issues. According to the firm, it has such clients who operate in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and China, in addition to the United States.
The ex-senator's value to the firm includes merely showing up and wielding his influence. In September, he was to be paired with Somali warlord Abdullahi Yussuf Ahmed at a 500-seat Somali banquet in SeaTac. But Col. Ahmed, self-anointed leader of a Somali autonomy called Puntland, apparently called off the visit due to illness. A petition to the United Nations claims Ahmed and other Somali warlords have ordered "disappearances" and approved mass murder during the country's continuing civil war. The Seattle stop was supposed to kick off a short American tour, arranged by Preston Gates, to drum up support for Ahmed, his government said at the time. The firm had no comment Monday.
Preston Gates' complete client list is not public, but it includes the China Great Wall Industry Corp., a commercial arm of the Chinese government that, in 1991, was hit with sanctions by the first Bush administration for selling missiles to Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran. In 1998, the state-owned company was accused of—and denied—receiving sensitive technology with military applications from U.S. electronics firms. It was also accused of illegally giving $300,000 to notorious Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung. China Great Wall today touts itself as a "peacemaking" satellite and space-technology developer.
PRESTON GATES specializes in national security issues that are likely to fall under the purview of Gorton's panel. The Seattle law firm currently is recruiting clients for its new homeland-security practice, offering to help corporations cash in on some of the projected $2 billion in government spending. The firm tells prospective clients it "played a significant" lobbying role in passage of the USA Patriot Act and the pork-riddled Homeland Security bill. Its promotional literature claims the firm's "attorneys and counselors—including former insiders and supervisors of intelligence agencies—maintain high-level contacts at CIA, NSA, DIA, FBI, congressional committees, and in the office of the Homeland Security Advisor."
Gorton can't envision how his and his firm's connections could get in the way of the Sept. 11 panel. "We'll be independent. We'll be able to call anyone we want" to testify during hearings, he says. He doesn't think the commission's eventual recommendations could benefit his firm's clients financially. "It's not even an issue," he says. "I'm not even a partner. What I do, I do."
Asked if he thought his firm would reap political advantage from his new appointment—Preston Gates last week announced Gorton's appointment in a press release to clients and others—Gorton responded: "I think it's an awful stretch to say that. This is Jim Ellis' firm. Its entire history is one of widespread public service." (The firm's history also includes representing a garment sweatshop in the Northern Mariana Islands.)