Ex-Md. congressman advises Haiti leader Barnes pushes for president's return

October 22, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- If the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide reclaims his presidency -- or if the United States gets sucked into Haiti's bloody morass trying to make it happen -- a former Maryland congressman will get a big share of the credit or blame.

Michael D. Barnes, now a Washington lawyer, has emerged as both the exiled leader's top U.S. adviser and an influential voice in maintaining U.S. pressure on Haiti's de facto military rulers.

His passionate advocacy, persistence and political ties have helped keep Washington's attention focused on restoring Haiti's elected leader to power.

This week, Mr. Barnes, 50, is working in overdrive.

When a public rift developed between the United States and Father Aristide over possibly broadening his government, he persuaded the White House, State Department and the United Nations envoy in Port-au-Prince to disavow any pressure on Father Aristide to include members of the de facto military regime in his government.

At the same time, he distanced Father Aristide from accusations by some of his supporters that the United States was trying to sell him out.

After former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger repeated charges that Father Aristide is a psychopath, Mr. Barnes checked with President Clinton's deputy national security adviser and let a reporter know that the adviser considered the charge "garbage."

This kind of help doesn't come cheap. The firm of Hogan & Hartson, where Mr. Barnes is leading a team of lawyers working to ensure Father Aristide's return, is paid a $55,000-a-month retainer by the ousted leadership of a country where the average per capita income is $360 a year.

Partial compensation

But Mr. Barnes defends the retainer, saying it represents only partial compensation.

"I doubt there was ever a month in which our legal services were worth less than $100,000," he says.

Those services open a window on an often overlooked side of Washington decision making, in which politically connected lawyers and lobbyists sometimes eclipse ambassadors in influencing government policy and tactics.

Mr. Barnes, who represented Montgomery County in the House from 1979 to 1986, is a relative newcomer to this world. But the Haiti campaign has propelled him into its front ranks, with appearances on ABC-TV's "Nightline" and easy access to the West Wing.

Still, he describes his work as less a job than a personal crusade.

"There is nothing in my career of which I have been more proud than being involved in this effort to restore democracy to Haiti," he says. "The people of Haiti have suffered more misery than anyone should be asked to suffer."

Mr. Barnes was first drawn to Haiti's enduring political tragedy as chairman of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee in the early 1980s.

Mr. Barnes first offered to represent Father Aristide here in September 1991, when the newly deposed president set up a temporary exile in Caracas Venezuela.

Worked for free

For several months, he worked for free. Then, his law firm was reimbursed for travel, telephone and other expenses.

After Mr. Clinton's election, Father Aristide put Mr. Barnes' firm, Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin and Kahn, on retainer starting Jan. 1. Mr. Barnes took the $55,000-a-month retainer with him when he switched in May to Hogan & Hartson, a premier law firm where partners earned an average of $385,000 in 1992, according to the American Lawyer magazine.

Father Aristide has access to Haitian government funds in the United States totaling tens of millions of dollars, a combination of assets frozen after the coup and subsequent fees and taxes paid by U.S. firms that do business in Haiti.

Payments from the accounts are controlled by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, but Father Aristide and his government have wide discretion over how they use them.

"It's their money," a Treasury official said. "They send in a broad description of its use, and we license a drawdown . . ."

The investment in Mr. Barnes is easy to comprehend.

The former congressman, who was defeated by Barbara A. Mikulski in a three-way Senate primary in 1986, chaired Mr. Clinton's general election campaign in Maryland, producing a victory margin second only to the president's home state of Arkansas.

Clinton's man

He forged a relationship with Mr. Clinton during Maryland campaign stops. And his ties to the president's foreign policy team are deep. Mr. Barnes first met national security adviser Anthony Lake when the two worked on Edmund S. Muskie's 1972 presidential campaign.

He also has dealt with Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Mr. Lake's deputy, who was a partner at Hogan & Hartson before entering the White House.

"If this were a commercial client, I wouldn't be talking to Sandy. But this is a case where the United States and President Aristide are working together to achieve a joint objective . . . I'm comfortable chatting with Sandy," Mr. Barnes says.

Mr. Berger obtained authorization from the White House counsel's office before the contacts began, a White House spokesman said.

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