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Eritrea, Ethiopia, Abramoff, and Rohrbacher

26 March, 2006

U.S. Congressman
Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who has sponsored legislation aimed at damaging Ethiopia, has strong ties to the scandal-plagued lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was recently convicted of defrauding several of his clients of millions of dollars.  Earlier this year, he pled guilty to numerous federal conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud charges. He has agreed to tell the FBI about alleged bribes to as many as 20 members of Congress and aides.

In March 2005, Rohrabacher introduced a bill, HR 1061, the American Property Claims Against Ethiopia Act, which would “prohibit United States assistance to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia until the Ethiopian Government returns all property of United States citizens and entities that has been nationalized, expropriated, or otherwise seized by the Ethiopian Government in contravention of international law, and for other purposes.”

This bill was introduced by Rohrabacher at the behest of Gebremedhin Berhane, a former Eritrean national whose son, Petros, was described by the Daily Pilot newspaper of Newport Beach (California) as “one of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's surfing buddies.”  The Berhane family has contributed at least USD1,250 to Rohrabacher’s political campaigns in recent years.  Gebremedhin Berhane has a property claim against the Ethiopian government that dates to when the Mengistu regime expropriated his business.  The current Ethiopian government has offered to settle the claim, but the Berhane family has refused to accept a settlement; instead, it has enlisted the help of a U.S. Congressman to write a law for that family’s particular benefit.

When asked about the Berhane legislation by the Orange County Register, a newspaper based in Rohrabacher’s congressional district, the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, said: “I don't think that this is the best way to go about foreign policy.”

More recently, on March 7, 2006, Rohrabacher introduced HR 4895, an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 “to limit the provision of United States military assistance and the sale, transfer, or licensing of United States military equipment or technology to Ethiopia.’

On that same day, Rohrabacher joined as a cosponsor of HR 4423, the Ethiopian Consolidation Act of 2006, which has the benign-sounding purpose to “encourage and facilitate the consolidation of security, human rights, democracy, and economic freedom in Ethiopia.”

In all these cases, it is easy to see the hidden hand of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  In an article entitled “Rohrabacher And Abramoff: A Beautiful Friendship,” the American Progress Action Fund’s online publication, ThinkProgress, writes:

“Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has sprung to the defense of his college buddy, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, calling him “a good person.” In fact, Rohrbacher admitted he thought “a lot of other things that have been characterized as corruption on the part of Abramoff are actually standard operating procedures for lobbying in Washington, D.C. — arranging trips and things like that.”

“Let’s take a look at the beautiful friendship between the two men:

“ – Rohrabacher enjoyed free dinners at Signatures, Abramoff’s high-end restaurant, once or twice a month.

“ – Rohrabacher took one of Abramoff’s “Standard Operating Procedure”-style trips, visiting the Northern Mariana Islands while Abramoff was working to convince Congress keep factories in a U.S. territory free from complying with fair labor laws. [Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 28, 2005]

“ – Rohrabacher helped Abramoff score a $60 million loan to buy the SunCruz fleet of casino boats in Florida by allowing the lobbyist to list him as a personal reference. (Abramoff added a faked $23 million wire transfer to Rohrabacher’s reference to close the sale.)”

Well-known journalist Arianna Huffington – who, as a one-time candidate for governor of California, is intimately familiar with the inner workings of American (and California) politics – wrote of Rohrabacher and Abramoff that the “two pals are also members of the Brotherhood of the Would-Be Hollywood Players.”

The Abramoff connection goes a long way in explaining Rohrabacher’s favoritism toward Eritrea and antipathy toward Ethiopia.  For several years, when Abramoff was a paid lobbyist for the Eritrean government, he cultivated Rohrabacher as a friend of Eritrea.

According to a story in the Washington Post on November 2, 2002:

“To help make sure its message gets heard -- and accepted -- Eritrea has hired Greenberg Traurig, the law firm that includes a lobbying team headed by Jack Abramoff, who has close ties to the new House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

“According to Greenberg Traurig's contract with Eritrea, included in the firm's Foreign Agents Registration Act filing at the Justice Department, the country is paying Greenberg Traurig $50,000 a month for helping "in implementing its public policy goals in Washington." That's $600,000 for the yearlong engagement from April 15, 2002, to April 14, 2003.

“By the way, the CIA World Factbook 2002 pegs Eritrea's per-capita gross domestic product at about $740 for last year. Eritrea, which gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, went through a punishing war from 1998 to 2000 with its neighbor. Eighty thousand people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

“Their biggest issue is they want to reach out to America and have better relations,’ says Padgett Wilson, director of governmental affairs at Greenberg Traurig.”

In an article in the November/December 2002 edition of Washington Business Forward, reporter John Bresnehan wrote:

“Most people in this town, even many who work in politics, have never heard of the tiny African nation of Eritrea. But if lobbyist Jack Abramoff has his way, they’re about to.

“Abramoff, a partner with Miami-based law firm Greenberg Traurig, says he believes in the free-market principles espoused by the Eritrean government and wants to help open the door to U.S. investment in this Red Sea country, which fought a bloody two-and-a-half-year border war with its larger neighbor, Ethiopia, that ended in 2000. Eritrea was part of Ethiopia until 1993.

“Abramoff is scaling back his standard $150,000-per-month fee, one of the highest in Washington, in order to represent the impoverished Eritrea for the bargain-basement rate of $50,000 per month. Why? ‘That’s a very exciting client,’ Abramoff says. ‘They want to be the Singapore of Africa — that’s their goal. They want to set up policies that encourage investment, encourage free markets. They want to be a U.S. base.’”

As recently as February 11, 2006, the prestigious publication, National Journal, reported that “Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who famously provided a personal reference for Jack Abramoff in 2000 when the lobbyist was seeking financing to buy SunCruz Casinos, took a six-day trip to Malaysia in January 2002, accompanied by his wife and two of Abramoff's then-partners at the firm Greenberg Traurig. One of the lobbyists was Rohrabacher's former aide Tony Rudy.”

When Abramoff let go of the Eritrea account – to move on to defrauding Indian tribes and buying a gambling casino boat – his friends at Alexander Strategy Group took it on.  (Alexander Strategies, which also has strong ties to indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, recently closed its doors as a result of the Abramoff scandals.)

Alexander Strategy partner Paul Behrends contributed USD1,800 to Rohrabacher’s congressional re-election campaigns between 2001 and 2005.  Tony Rudy, also of Alexander Strategy, donated USD1,000 to Rohrabacher in 2004.  Jack Abramoff himself donated USD1,000 in 1997, according to Federal Election Commission records, but Abramoff’s modus operandi has been to arrange for contributions from clients so that they do not all look like they came from the same source.

Dana Rohrabacher recently appeared at an anti-Ethiopia rally in Washington, D.C.  According to the Eritrean web site,, Rohrabacher said: “The American People are not fully aware of what is going on in Ethiopia and what we have now is a great opportunity to discard the corruption and discard the repression of the regime (Minority Regime in Addis) that should be ending.”

Source: 2006

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