By ANTHONY IAN CRUZ
The $500,000 contract with the controversial law and lobby firm Covington and Burling LLP is “almost a done deal”, according to Philippine Ambassador to the US Willy Gaa.
Gaa said the six-month contract with lobbyist Stuart E. Eizenstat, partner and chair of the international practice of Covington and Burling LLP, may also be renewed, if needed.
Chief presidential legal counsel Sergio Apostol has claimed the contract was needed to counter lobby efforts by leftist groups which has resulted in the inclusion of human rights conditions on further US military aid.
The contract was first exposed by Sen. Mar Roxas III and has been the subject of criticisms from families of victims of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances and from anti-corruption watchdogs.
A human rights lawyer has dubbed the deal as “stupid and preposterous”.
A Philippine News report said that Gaa, acting deputy chief of mission Carlos Sorreta and consul general Domingo Nolasco made the confirmation at the embassy’s year-end press luncheon on Dec. 27 at the US capitol’s Army and Navy Club.
Sorreta said that the contract will soon be signed in public ceremonies in the US.
Negotiations for the the lobbying contract started in Sept. 2007, said Gaa, who also admitted attending the negotiations.
Philippine News also quoted Gaa as saying that “there was no signing commission involved” and explained that the government payments to Covington and Burling LLP will come from the Department of Budget and Management and coursed through the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Asked why they chose Eizenstat, a lobbyist identified with the US Democratic Party, Gaa said that “we considered his qualifications as a professional and his background.”
Gaa said that they also “looked beyond the political affiliation,” while stressing that “there are also Republican lobbyists in Covington and Burling LLP.”
Gaa said that Eizenstat and his firm are expected to lobby for the Arroyo government’s interests with a Republican President and a Congress whose two houses are controlled by Democrats.
“This is very stupid and presposterous,” says human rights lawyer Neri Javier Colmenares, secretary-general of the National Union of People’s Lawyers.
“Does the government think that employing a lobbyist will change the perception of UN special rapporteur Philip Alston and US Sen. Barbara Boxer? Their views are based on actual reports of human rights atrocities committed by the government,” said Colmenares.
He expects victims of human rights violations to protest the contract, arguing that “after killing and abducting their relatives and trying to cover up the crimes, the government now wants an expensive lobby to hypnotize the US and the world into forgetting everything.”
“It is utterly revolting that taxpayers’ money is going to be used to cover up the murders and abductions which taxpaying citizens have long demanded to be fully investigated and stopped,” said Colmenares.
Colmenares said that the Philippine embassy in the US may also be liable for violations of the government procurement processes.
“Firstly, the objective of whitewashing the government’s proven bloody human rights record is immoral and illegal. Secondly, the purported negotiations were done in secret and away from the public eye. Third, the embassy seems to imply that Congress appropriated public money for the contract which is at the very least highly suspect,” Colmenares explained.
In a text message, Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes Jr. said the contract is “a waste of people’s money”.
Reyes and Colmenares agreed that what the Arroyo government should do is “to improve its human rights record and to stop the killings and abductions.”
Alston released late last year a “damning” report that tagged the Arroyo government’s military as perpetrators of extrajudicial executions.
Boxer meanwhile presided over a landmark US Senate hearing where a Filipino Protestant bishop and the leader of the human rights Karapatan delivered scathing testimonies.
Covington and Burling LLP’s current roster of clients include leading multinational agro corporation Monsanto, which is the subject of protests by farmers in Mindanao for massive selling of genetically-modified BT-corn seeds.
Previous clients of Covington and Burling LLP include Halliburton, an oil company where US Vice President Dick Cheney worked before becoming the teammate of US President George W. Bush.
Halliburton hired the firm for $520,000 “inquiries concerning company’s construction and service contracts in Iraq” which US government records placed at $1.59-billion as of Oct. 2003.
Bush’s father, former President Bush became the CEO of Halliburton in 1992.
Covington and Burling also successfully argued on behalf of the Southern Peru Copper Corporation to drop a lawsuit brought against it by Peruvians who accused the copper company with polluting communities and causing health problems.
It also served as “corporate affairs consultant” to the Philip Morris tobacco firm.