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

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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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.”