Published by New York Times
By Larry Rohter
Since 1998, the lobbying firm headed until recently by Charlie Black, one of Mr. McCain’s closest confidants, has earned more than $1.8 million representing the Occidental Petroleum Corporation, the leading foreign producer of gas and oil in Colombia. The lobbying firm, BKSH & Associates, has also represented Colombian textile and apparel manufacturers and a former foreign minister and presidential candidate who is also a prominent businesswoman.
According to official filings, Mr. Black, who resigned as chairman of BKSH in March, lobbied Congress, the State Department and the White House on Occidental’s behalf regarding “general energy issues” and “general trade issues” involving Colombia. His list of activities also included winning “foreign assistance for Colombia” and efforts to block an economic embargo against the country, which has a questionable human rights record.
“Though he did not have high visibility, we encountered his shadow often,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, an advocacy group that monitors Latin American human rights and political issues from Washington.
Mr. McCain is making the trip in part to highlight his support for a free-trade agreement with Colombia that the Bush administration wants to see approved by Congress by year’s end. The senator, a strong free-trade advocate, has spoken in favor of the accord on the campaign trail.
His presumed Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama, opposes the deal and frequently cites it in campaign speeches as an example of what he sees as the administration’s wrongheaded trade policies. Mr. Obama has expressed environmental and human rights concerns, including what he describes as the Colombian government’s repression of labor unions.
Mr. Black has recently been at the center of campaign controversy over an interview, published in June by Fortune magazine, in which he said that another terrorist attack on the United States would benefit Mr. McCain’s candidacy. The McCain campaign declined to make him available to discuss his lobbying activities on behalf of Colombia for BKSH.
“The campaign has no connection to that firm and therefore no connection to the questions you are asking,” said Tucker Bounds, a campaign spokesman.
Occidental’s activities in Colombia have long been controversial, both within that country and among human-rights, indigenous-rights and environmental groups abroad. The groups have accused the company of complicity in the killing of peasants thought to be sympathetic to the left-wing guerrilla groups that operate in the area where Occidental has pipelines or drilling activities. They have also blamed Occidental for the polluting of rural areas and have accused it of intimidating Indian tribes seeking to prevent drilling on their ancestral lands.
Occidental has long denied the accusations, maintaining that its practices are environmentally sound and describing its critics as unrepresentative.
The most controversial episode dates from December 1998, when the Colombian Air Force dropped cluster bombs on Santo Domingo, a village near an Occidental pipeline, killing 18 people. Human rights groups and Colombian government officials say the bombing was a mistake that occurred because three employees of a Florida-based aerial security company employed by Occidental to monitor guerrilla movements had provided incorrect coordinates to the Colombian military pilots.
The American employees of the security company dropped out of sight, and Colombian government efforts to have them handed over for questioning and perhaps trial were fruitless. Frustrated by what they consider the security company’s stonewalling, human rights groups filed suit in California in 2003 and 2004 against Occidental, whose headquarters is in Los Angeles.
Occidental has denied any responsibility for the bombing of Santo Domingo, saying when the first suit was filed that it “has not and does not provide lethal aid to Colombia’s armed forces.”
Even as the Santo Domingo attack became a cause célèbre among human rights groups in Washington, as well as some lawmakers there, Congress approved a special appropriation of nearly $100 million for the protection of oil pipelines in Colombia in 2003, when Mr. Black’s firm was lobbying on Occidental’s behalf.
Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch, a human rights group that works on behalf of Colombian Indian tribes opposed to oil drilling and pipelines on their lands, said Mr. Black was also “very active” while Congress was debating a $1.3 billion military assistance package to Colombia that became law in 2000. “We’d be making the rounds in Congress,” Ms. Soltani said, “and Oxy would be there making the rounds, too.”
Occidental has come under fire as well in connection with the 2003 killing of three Colombian labor leaders who were initially and erroneously said to be affiliated with one of the guerrilla groups that regularly attack Occidental’s installations. Three Colombian soldiers, all of them members of a special unit that guards an Occidental pipeline, were charged with murder.
Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.