Wynn's Client Draws Fire

Finnish Firm Attacked By Rights Advocates For Work In Sudan

July 07, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - -Former Rep. Albert R. Wynn's first client as a registered lobbyist is a unit of a Finnish company that has been sharply criticized by human-rights advocates for its work in Sudan, according to a recently filed disclosure report.

The Maryland Democrat quit his House seat last year, months before his term was up, in order to join a powerful Washington lobbying firm. The early departure gave Wynn a head start on an ethics law that requires members of Congress to wait one full year after leaving office before they begin lobbying their former colleagues.

Wynn's first lobbying registration disclosure, dated June 30, lists his client as Wartsila North America Inc. of Houston, a wholly owned subsidiary of Wartsila Oyj, a global engineering company. The Helsinki company has been targeted by corporate responsibility and human rights groups over its activities in the African nation of Sudan, whose government has been widely criticized for violence against civilians in its Darfur region.

In April, Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, who defeated Wynn in last year's Democratic primary, was one of five members of Congress arrested at a Darfur protest rally outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington. Wynn spoke out against genocide in Darfur while in Congress and took part in similar protest rallies in 2004 and 2006.

Wynn, reached by phone Monday afternoon at his office at Dickstein Shapiro LLP, sounded taken aback when asked about his client's activities in Sudan.

"I'm sorry. You caught me right in the middle of something," Wynn replied after a moment and said he would call back.

Later, a firm spokeswoman, Michelle Rodgers, said in an e-mailed statement that Wynn anticipates lobbying on Wartsila's behalf but that, "to date, he has made no contact at the congressional" level.

The written statement appeared designed to head off questions about whether Wynn might have already violated a federal law that makes it a crime for a former U.S. representative to lobby a member of Congress within one year after he leaves office.

Wynn's registration as a lobbyist carries an effective date of May 18, 2009, which is less than a year after his announced resignation date of May 31, 2008.

For years, Wartsila's activities in Sudan have been the subject of a divestment campaign. The Sudan Divestment Task Force, a project started by the Genocide Intervention Network, has listed Wartsila among the worst offenders. Foreign companies, including Wartsila, help the Sudanese government exploit its petroleum resources, which is only possible with outside help, activists say.

Last week, the New York State pension fund said it was divesting more than $86 million in holdings from nine companies doing business in Sudan and Iran, including Wartsila Oyj.

"We don't expect our investments to benefit regimes that support genocide and terrorism," said New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

When Wynn left Congress to join the lobbying firm, he was criticized in part because it forced taxpayers to pay the cost of a special election to choose a replacement, estimated at the time at $500,000 or more. Wynn said his decision to quit early enabled his successor to get a head start on seniority in the House.

Wynn, who represented Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Congress, is representing Wartsila on energy and nuclear issues, according to the disclosure report. Energy legislation is among the most lucrative lobbying bonanzas in Washington this year, as Democrats attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions and special interests try to bend the proposed new law to their benefit.

Wynn's unusual decision to resign before his term was up, the month after becoming a lame duck, had echoes in Sarah Palin's surprise move to step down as governor of Alaska. Palin did so upon deciding not to see re-election next year.

As the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, Palin announced that she would divest her holding in a mutual fund from Legg Mason Inc. of Baltimore, after being informed that it owned shares in Wartsila Oyj.

Palin held shares worth less than $15,000 in the Legg Mason International Equity fund, which, according to a 2008 Securities and Exchange Commission filing, reported that about 1 percent of the equity holdings of a parent fund were in Wartsila stock.

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