Lobbyists bring unwanted attention to law firm; Locke Liddell hire says focus on past ties is guilt by association

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Lobbyists are hired for their connections. But as Washington sorts through a growing lobbying scandal, the past connections of two lobbyists hired last fall by Locke Liddell & Sapp are bringing unwanted attention to the powerful Dallas law firm.

The two men, Roy Coffee and David DiStefano, have been connected to a foreign company’s attempt to work around U.S. sanctions against Iran and sell airplane parts to that nation – an attempt that centered on U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican accused in lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s recent plea agreement of accepting bribes.

The two lobbyists were hired in 2003 by a pair of businessmen with résumés out of a James Bond movie. One, a Syrian gambler nicknamed “The Fat Man,” made his fortune in Middle East arms deals. The other, a felon, was banned from East Coast racetracks in the 1980s for his connections to organized crime and has a Tennessee rap sheet for trying to defraud Elvis Presley.

Mr. Coffee and Mr. DiStefano have not been charged with any crimes, and there is no public evidence to indicate either is a direct target of the ongoing investigation.

Their activities generating scrutiny predate their joining the Dallas firm.

Locke Liddell spokeswoman Julie Gilbert said the firm still has confidence in the two lobbyists. “Our firm feels very comfortable about their reputation, credibility and ethical standing,” she said.

Mr. Coffee and Mr. DiStefano started work in Locke Liddell’s new Washington office in October, at a time when the firm – one of the biggest in Texas – wanted to expand its national footprint. One of its former partners, Harriet Miers, had just been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bush.

On its Web site, the firm promotes its lobbyists’ connections in the federal government, promising “a unique team with a vast number of political contacts at every level of government and the inside knowledge on how public processes operate. This adds up to success for our clients.”

According to news reports, documents about the attempted Iran sale have been subpoenaed as part of a spinoff from the Justice Department’s Abramoff investigation. Mr. DiStefano was Mr. Ney’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1998.

Mr. Coffee – son and grandson of the former University Park mayors of the same name and a longtime associate of President Bush – said he and Mr. DiStefano have done nothing wrong, despite questions from reporters.

“They love the salaciousness of a Syrian-born person and a guy with a criminal record,” he said. “It’s almost a guilt-by-association story.”

That story begins in early 2003, when Mr. Coffee and Mr. DiStefano were hired as lobbyists by a little-known company named FN Aviation.

FN Aviation was registered to an address in Larnaca, a city on the island nation of Cyprus. It was led by Nigel Winfield, a 68-year-old British man who has had a series of problems with the law.

Prison time

He served a federal prison term in the 1980s for conspiring to evade $7.4 million in taxes while living the high life selling jets and owning racehorses. In 1982, he was sentenced to six months for his role in trying to defraud Elvis Presley out of $330,000 through a complicated leasing scheme on a private jet.

In the late 1960s, he pleaded guilty on eight occasions to larceny, fraud and forgery charges in Massachusetts. And in 1981, he was banned from running his horses at a series of racetracks in part because of his connections to organized-crime figures in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Mr. Coffee said he and Mr. DiStefano had no idea about Mr. Winfield’s past when FN hired them. “It’s not my normal mode of operation to ask whether someone is a felon,” he said. “I never thought that someone who was very presentable, who had an ongoing company you could look up on the Internet, that I should be worried about somebody’s background.”

‘The Fat Man’

Mr. Winfield’s business partner in the venture was Fouad al-Zayat, a Syrian-born man who made millions in the 1980s working on Middle Eastern defense deals.

In 2002, a London court froze Mr. al-Zayat’s assets – including a Boeing 727 and a Rolls Royce – after the Ritz Casino charged that he had tried to buy about $3 million worth of gambling chips with seven checks that bounced.

That came after he lost about $17 million over more than 150 visits to the casino between 1999 and 2001.

Mr. al-Zayat is nicknamed “The Fat Man” in British gambling circles, according to news reports at the time of the court action, which called him “Britain’s biggest gambler.” The court also seized his bank accounts in Switzerland, the Isle of Man and Cyprus.

FN Aviation hired Mr. Coffee and Mr. DiStefano as lobbyists to “monitor trade legislation,” according to mandatory lobbying disclosure filings. Mr. Coffee was paid about $220,000 by FN in 2003, according to those filings. Mr. DiStefano was paid about $20,000.

Mr. Coffee said the two men arranged for FN officials to meet with Mr. Ney. In February 2003, Mr. Ney flew to London on a three-day trip paid for by the company. He reported on House disclosure forms that the trip was valued at $2,707 and concerned “trade and international business matters.”

There, he met with Mr. Winfield and Mr. al-Zayat, who said they wanted to sell airplane parts to Iran but were prevented by U.S. sanctions against the country. They were seeking a special government permit that could allow them to get around the sanctions.

Special permits

Mr. Coffee said he would not discuss the details of his work for FN Aviation. But the Jan. 23 issue of Newsweek reports that, after Mr. Ney’s trip, the congressman personally lobbied then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to allow the exception to sanctions.

The special permits were in the end not approved, Newsweek reports, because FN Aviation’s proposed deal with Iran fell through. Mr. Coffee said the company dissolved a few months later. Mr. Ney’s spokesman, Brian Walsh, did not return a call from The News, but he told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Ney “did not lobby” for FN Aviation.

According to his personal finance disclosure filing, Mr. Ney returned to London sometime later in 2003 and gambled at the Ambassador’s Club, a private casino at which Mr. al-Zayat was a member. He reported winning $34,000. Mr. Walsh, his spokesman, has said that Mr. Ney won that sum by playing two hands of a three-card game of chance, with an initial bet of $100.

Mr. Ney is one of the key figures in the widening Abramoff scandal. Under pressure from GOP leadership, he agreed last week to temporarily resign his chairmanship of the House administration committee while he is investigated on corruption charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.

In Mr. Abramoff’s plea agreement, Mr. Ney is referred to as “Representative No. 1.” As part of his guilty plea, Mr. Abramoff admitted bribing Mr. Ney and members of his staff with a series of gifts, including expense-paid trips to Scotland and the Northern Marianas, in exchange for various favors.

Ties to Texas

Mr. Coffee was deputy campaign manager for George W. Bush’s first run for governor in 1994. After the election, he was Texas’ director of state-federal relations until 1998. He then joined the Washington lobbying firm O’Connor & Hannan.

He was known for close connections to the Bush family. In 2000, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call said some lobbyists called him “Bush’s ‘eyes and ears’ on K Street.”

It’s not unusual for powerful law firms to offer lobbying services. Locke Liddell’s lobbying business represents a wide range of clients, including a number of firms in the telecommunications, energy and health care industries.

Ms. Gilbert, the firm’s director of strategic communications, said Locke Liddell’s October announcement of a new Washington office was not timed to coincide with Ms. Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Coffee and Mr. DiStefano joined the firm in October after a lengthy search process, Ms. Gilbert said.

“We had been doing a search and they came highly recommended,” she said. “We felt they each had strong backgrounds and exceptional credentials and matched what we wanted. They have capabilities in all branches of the government.”

But Alex Knott, a lobbying analyst for the government watchdog group Center for Public Integrity, said that lobbying firms hire former Capitol Hill staffers like Mr. DiStefano to gain access to their connections.

“Why else would you hire somebody with a revolving-door connection to Bob Ney unless you planned on using that pre-existing relationship?” he said. “The people with revolving-door connections deliver. That’s why they’re hired in the first place.”

Mr. Coffee said he is confident Mr. Ney’s difficulties will not taint him or Mr. DiStefano.

“Everything was filed ethically and legally, and there was no problem,” he said. “I know we have done nothing wrong.”

Column: For a fresher start, push back the bell

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The more I write about schools, the more convinced I get that the answers to our education problems lie far from campus.

Teens spend seven hours a day in school, 180 days a year. But let’s be honest: That’s about a third the time they spend playing Grand Theft Auto.

But just because some problem in a kid’s life develops outside the classroom doesn’t mean schools are powerless to fix things.

Today’s example: sleep.

Teenagers are always accused of staying up too late and being too lazy to get up in the morning. Frazzled parents know how hard it can be to rouse a 16-year-old from slumber in time for the bus.

But there’s an established body of research that says teenagers aren’t lazy because of any sort of moral weakness. Their bodies just aren’t designed the same way adults’ are. (Or younger kids’ are, for that matter.) They can’t help it.

The queen of teen sleep research is Mary Carskadon, a Brown University professor. Her studies have found that an average teenager gets about 7.5 hours of sleep a night, when their bodies are screaming out for about 9.25.

She describes early-morning teenagers as being in “a kind of a gray cloud.” They can’t concentrate on anything, and they get cranky. I’ve been in enough North Texas classrooms in the morning to recognize the bleary-eyed race of zombies she’s talking about.

Her latest research looked at how much melatonin teens’ bodies produce. That would be the hormone that promotes sleep – you can find it in pills you buy to fight jet lag or insomnia.

Her research found that teenagers don’t start producing large amounts of melatonin until 10 or 11 p.m. – significantly later than for adults or elementary-age kids. And those melatonin levels don’t start to drop in teens until around 8 a.m. – again, later than other folks.

It’s not surprising, of course, that teenagers and hormones are a combination that can cause trouble. But what in the world can educators do about hormones?

They can stop starting high school at absurdly early hours. In North Texas, what time the first bell rings is a decision of each school district. And the decisions vary widely.

Checking around, the earliest start time I found is in Mansfield, at 7:15. The latest are in Lancaster and Plano, which don’t start until 9:00. And the trend seems to be moving later.

Until 2002, Frisco schools’ bell schedules were perfectly backwards. Frisco High started class at 7:50. That’s not outrageously early by local standards. But for kids who have before-school sports practice or club meetings, it could mean waking up at 5:30 each morning.

The district decided to switch things around. It pushed the high school’s first classes back to 8:45.

Rick Burnett, Frisco High’s principal for the last 14 years, noticed the difference. “Watching kids as they walk into the buildings, they’re definitely more alert, better prepared to start the day,” he said. “There’s a marked difference.”

He said he’s confident the change has had an effect on academic performance, though he acknowledges he doesn’t have any data to prove it. “We had to move some things around, but it really wasn’t a difficult adjustment,” he said.

Of course, delaying the start of school has complications. There are extracurricular activities to schedule and bus routes to rework. And parents are notorious for resisting changes to something as fundamental as when to get your kids to school.

All those concerns were raised in Frisco and in other districts making the move. They’re mostly problems that affect adults who might be inconvenienced and have to shift things around.

But people adjust to change over time. The question is: Do we want to arrange our public schools to make life convenient for adults or so that kids can best learn?

If it were the latter, we probably wouldn’t be asking kids to do trigonometry in a gray cloud.