Schmoke assailed over new client

Some say his work for diplomat shows slant toward Cuba

February 29, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's representation of a Cuban diplomat expelled from the United States over the weekend rang of baseball legend Yogi Berra's famous malapropism: deja vu all over again.

Thirteen years ago, one year after becoming Baltimore mayor, Schmoke stumbled into the national spotlight and controversy by being the highest ranking elected U.S. politician to suggest that the nation back off in prosecuting drug offenses.

The 50-year-old former mayor burst back into the limelight last weekend as the attorney for Cuban emissary Jose Imperatori, whom the United States has accused of spying for Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Escorted out of the country Saturday, Imperatori remained in Montreal yesterday, on a hunger strike.

Outrage at Schmoke's hiring began bubbling to the surface.

"It makes evident his sympathy for the Castro regime," said Anna Carbonell, spokeswoman for Republican Miami Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Castro's chief Capitol Hill critic. "There is definitely an agenda of cooperation with Castro that goes beyond favoring one position or another."

Now an attorney with the high-powered Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering law firm in Washington, Schmoke was in his Baltimore office yesterday preparing to fly to California to debate former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett on Schmoke's stance on drugs. He called reaction to his representation of Imperatori more emotion over the 40-year Cold War strife with Castro.

"I haven't received too many calls," Schmoke said of his weekend activities. "Not like when I did at City Hall when I first went down to Cuba. I think people distinguish a lawyer's role from the political role of an elected official."

Yet speculation swirled over Schmoke's relationship to Castro and Cuba. In the last of his 12 years as mayor, Schmoke helped negotiate a yearlong exchange with Cuba that included the Baltimore Orioles baseball team playing last year in Havana and the Cuban All-Stars playing in Camden Yards.

The cultural swap between the two nations also included a chess match, tennis exhibition featuring Baltimore native Pam Shriver and an exchange of doctors. Skeptical Internet users mused yesterday that Schmoke's international effort was made to carve his legal niche for life after City Hall.

Schmoke scoffed, saying that when he visited Cuba for the baseball game last summer, his plans to return to law were not set.

"I certainly couldn't predict the day I started practicing that I would be involved in this type of case," said Schmoke, who stepped down as mayor Dec. 7. "The Cubans don't do much legal work in the United States."

Schmoke repeated that his chief interest in the case is making sure Imperatori has legal representation. The FBI expelled Imperatori for allegedly having contact with a Miami Immigration and Naturalization Service official accused of spying. Schmoke's background as a lawyer, former U.S. politician, Washington player and highest-ranking American politician to visit Cuba recently proved key to his being selected by the Cuban government for the case.

"He's an attorney, isn't he?" said Niniska Perez, spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to freedom and democracy in Cuba. "Attorneys have to defend their clients" whether they are lowlifes "or intelligence agents," she said.

Schmoke's role as Imperatori's lawyer on behalf of the Cuban government is on hold until Imperatori returns to the U.S. State Department, if he does so. Officials said yesterday that could happen.

"If and when the time comes that law enforcement officials seek his presence in court or in other law enforcement proceedings, and he chooses to come, that will be fine," State Department Spokesman James P. Rubin said.

Canadian officials gave Imperatori 48 hours to leave that country. Cuba has accused the United States of using Imperatori's case to block or delay the return of 6-year-old boat wreck victim Elian Gonzalez, who arrived in South Florida on Nov. 25 after his mother drowned trying to escape their homeland.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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