WASHINGTON • As a member of Congress, Dick Gephardt often spoke passionately about the need for the United States to recognize as genocide the mass deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians under the Turkish government that began one century ago.
But as a lobbyist for Turkey since leaving Congress in 2005, Gephardt, a Democrat, has taken the opposite side. His behind-the-scenes work has been cited as a factor in the annual failure of Congress to recognize the Armenian genocide.
Justice Department records show that Gephardt’s lobbying firm has been paid more than $8 million since 2008 to fight the declaration and represent Turkey on other contentious issues, including repatriation of Christian holy sites seized over the last century in that Muslim nation.
Now, in the 100th-anniversary year of what Armenians refer to as Meds Yeghern — “great calamity” — two Armenian-American groups are pressuring Gephardt’s lobbying firm to drop Turkey as a client, and for companies to drop Gephardt as their lobbyist.
Gephardt, who declined to respond to repeated interview requests, has ignored the Armenian groups’ letters. Three companies have ended contracts with the Gephardt Group since the two Armenian-American groups launched a letter-writing campaign in January, although none publicly tied the decision to the letters.
Critics of the former congressman from St. Louis say he is just another example of the revolving door between electoral office and the lucrative lobbying business, where policy positions seem to change based on who’s paying the bill.
Son of a Milkman
Gephardt often described himself as the son of a milkman in 18 years representing St. Louis in Congress. He campaigned as a Midwestern everyman, champion of the working class, with All-American ambitions that led to two unsuccessful campaigns for the White House. But since leaving office, he has been emblematic of the path from elective office to private influence, as ex-members of Congress and their former staffers use the power and prestige they built in public office to segue to lucrative lobbying careers. The nonpartisan watchdog Center for Responsive Politics lists 427 ex-members of Congress who have lobbied or advised lobbyists, including former Republican U.S. senators from Missouri Jim Talent, John Ashcroft and Christopher “Kit” Bond.
When he retired from Congress in 2007, Gephardt told the Post-Dispatch that, as a lobbyist, he would be “involved in the same issues I used to be involved in.” He looked forward to weekends off for the first time in 30 years. He built a house in Sonoma, Calif., and had a condo in Naples, Fla., and promised his wife, Jane, that after tromping through Iowa and New Hampshire presidential snows, she would never be cold again.
Gephardt also said that his views of relations between the U.S. and Turkey — often described as the world’s leading Muslim democracy — changed profoundly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We’ve got to have models out there of Muslim governments that are moderate and successful,” he said.
And yet in 2003, while running for president two years after 9/11, Gephardt co-sponsored HR193, which said recognition of “Armenian Genocide,” along with the Holocaust and genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda, must be recognized to “help prevent future genocides.”
Four years later, he was accepting money from Turkey to fight such recognition.
Over the last six years, the Gephardt Group has earned $4.7 million to $6.7 million annually from a host of corporations and associations, including Google, Goldman Sachs and Boeing, and St. Louis area employers Ameren, Anheuser-Busch, Peabody Energy and Prairie State Generating, according to CRP.
Besides Turkey, Gephardt has had contracts worth a collective $1.4 million representing Taiwan, Georgia, El Salvador and South Korea, according to Justice Department records.
His company’s most recent contract with Turkey, signed in March, is for $170,000 a month, with roughly half going to subcontractors, including a firm that employed former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
In 2013, Gephardt and Hastert helped arrange a visit to Turkey for eight members of Congress. According to the National Journal, they did so by exploiting loopholes in lobbying reforms passed in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal that ended lobbyists’ ability to pay for trips for members of Congress. Lobbyists can, however, plan and accompany members on trips paid for by foreign governments, as the National Journal said happened in this case.
In lobbying for Turkey, Gephardt has stepped to the other side of a highly polarizing, highly charged debate. In recent months, other governments, including Germany, have declared the deaths of Armenians genocide. Pope Francis in April urged such recognition.
In response, the Turkish government — saying modern Turkey should not have to atone for what it calls deaths from war and starvation in the Ottoman Empire in World War I — has pulled envoys from the Vatican.
In the U.S., the Armenian genocide debate is “inflamed” by politically active, second- and third-generation Armenian-Americans whose identity is wrapped in a belief that history demands recognition of genocide, said Edward Erickson, a professor of military history at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va.
But geopolitically, said Erickson, author of a dozen books on Turkey, “the United States needs Turkey a lot more than Turkey needs the United States.”
Among Armenian-Americans, there is a simple explanation for Gephardt’s shift.
It “is premised on one thing, and one thing only, which is money,” said Kenneth Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America.
“The cause of genocide prevention, a core moral imperative of our age, requires, as the pope so powerfully stated, that we not engage in ‘concealing or denying evil,’” Hachikian, a second-generation Armenian-American, told a congressional hearing in April.
At that hearing, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said Turkey’s “campaign of denial … underwrites a disinformation campaign to confuse the historical record.” After the hearing, he identified Gephardt as a key lobbyist in that effort.
The code of discretion
“As a matter of policy, we don’t discuss our clients,” said Thomas O’Donnell, a co-founding partner in Gephardt’s lobbying firm and his former chief of staff in Congress.Through O’Donnell, Gephardt declined interview requests.O’Donnell is among several Gephardt employees with deep roots in Turkish-American relations. Another is Michael Messmer, vice president of Gephardt Government Affairs, and a St. Louis native. He was also on Gephardt’s House leadership staff and later was assistant director of the Congress and U.S. Foreign Policy program at the influential Council on Foreign Relations.
The CRP says 29 former Gephardt Capitol Hill staffers are lobbyists or have worked for lobbying firms.
Messmer also did not respond to interview requests, nor did Hastert. Turkey’s embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple calls and emails.
Gephardt, 74, is not alone in lobbying for positions opposite those taken while in public office. Bond opposed Obamacare as a senator but lobbied the Missouri Legislature in 2014 to expand Medicaid, a key component of President Barack Obama’s health care reforms.
But Gephardt’s change on the genocide issue is stark because of the passion he once brought to the position.
In 1998, speaking to frequent applause from the Armenian National Committee of America in a Capitol Hill event, Gephardt called for Congress to “solemnly remember the genocide which occurred many years ago, but which so deeply affected so many families and people in Armenia. We must always keep that fact, those real facts, in our mind.”
But after going to work for Turkey in 2007, he told the Post-Dispatch that he was working toward a reconciliation that would avoid a genocide declaration, to “get all the facts on the table and let the chips fall where they may.”
Gephardt’s about-face on the issue is mirrored by that of President Barack Obama.
As a candidate in 2008, Obama said “the facts are undeniable” that genocide occurred. And yet in April, Obama avoided using the word “genocide” in his annual statement on the events in Armenia for the seventh consecutive time.
Instead, Obama used “massacre,” “horrific violence” and “dark chapter of history.”
While advocates for genocide recognition say that Turkey cannot move on from a dark chapter by denying it, some historians say the record is not clear in implicating the Turkish government.
Turkey has driven home that uncertainty with the help of not only Gephardt and Hastert, but ex-Republican House leader Bob Livingston and former administration and Pentagon officials.
Records at the Justice Department show scores of Gephardt meetings, email exchanges, arranged visits on Capitol Hill with Turkish diplomats and contacts with the highest officials of the Obama administration, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In late 2010, for instance, records show Gephardt lobbied Clinton, top Obama advisers and members of Congress days before then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled back a promised vote on a genocide resolution.
In the wake of actions like this, fellow Democrats have become some of Gephardt’s biggest critics.
“It really impairs having credibility on human rights issues when we pick and choose the genocides we recognize,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a persistent critic of Gephardt’s about-face.
However, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., dismissed the impact of the revolving door on stopping the Armenian genocide declaration.
“The relationship we have with Turkey and its importance to so many things that are happening in the region right now” is reason enough to avoid it, he said.
In January, as the 100th anniversary of Meds Yeghern approached, two Armenian-American groups began pressuring Gephardt and his clients.“The American corporate community must have a zero-tolerance policy against any action that either covers up past genocides or in any way contributes to future atrocities,” declared a Jan. 28 letter to the former congressman signed by leaders of the groups, the Armenian National Committee of America and the Armenian Assembly of America.“To that end, as a courtesy, we would like to inform you that we have reached out to all of your clients … to educate them about your lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government.”
The groups sent letters to roughly 200 clients who had hired either Gephardt or other lobbying firms that represented Turkey, saying the companies had a “troubling relationship” with genocide deniers.
The results of the letter campaign are unclear.
Spokesmen for Google, Boeing and of St. Louis-area companies Ameren, Anheuser-Busch and Peabody either refused to comment or said they had no record of receiving the letter.
But Frederick D. Palmer, Peabody’s senior vice president for government relations, wrote back to the Armenian-American groups saying his company would not drop lobbyists just because they represented Turkey.
“The events you describe are tragic indeed, but there is no basis to punish Turkey today, an ally for more than 60 years along with being a democratic and free market example that is rare in the region,” Palmer wrote.
The Los Angeles World Airport canceled its $20,000-a-month contract with Gephardt exactly a month after the letter was sent. Mary Grady, managing director of media and public relations for the airport, declined to say why.
Mike Zampa, communications director for the Port of Oakland, said the port allowed a $160,000 contract with Gephardt to expire in January but described it as a normal change.
The Human Rights Campaign also canceled its $10,000 monthly contract, but Fred Sainz, the rights organization’s director of communications, said it had “nothing to do with the Armenia letter.”
A lobbyist left the Gephardt Group, Sainz said, “and we followed him to his new firm.”