A surreptitious effort by Saudi Arabia to launch an advertising campaign in America led to a heated row at a prestigious Washington law firm and the departure of at least one of the firm's partners, according to people familiar with the conflict.
The internal fight at Patton Boggs was triggered by the firm's investment in a public relations company, Qorvis Communications, which began working for Saudi Arabia soon after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As the Saudis faced charges that they tolerated Islamic extremists and bankrolled terrorists, Patton Boggs itself also signed up the Saudi Arabian government as a client.
The arrangement was unknown to most Patton Boggs partners until the spring of 2002, when a radio advertising campaign sparked outrage in the Jewish community because of its harsh description of the Israeli military. The campaign was promoted under the name of the Alliance for Peace and Justice. However, Jewish activists soon discovered signs that the ads were orchestrated by Qorvis. Patton Boggs owns about 10% of the p.r. firm, according to people familiar with the arrangement.
Earlier this month, the FBI executed search warrants at Qorvis's offices as part of a criminal investigation into whether the ad campaign broke federal law by not disclosing funding from the Saudi government.
In April 2002, as word of the ad campaign spread, longtime clients of Patton Boggs forcefully expressed their dissatisfaction.
"I was very, very upset," said a Maryland accountant and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Michael Gelman. Mr. Gelman, who said he did a substantial amount of business with Patton Boggs, urged the law firm to cut its ties with Saudi Arabia and with Qorvis. "I basically said I couldn't really be associated with a firm that represents the enemies of the Jewish people," he said.
Mr. Gelman, who is a prolific donor to Democratic political causes, said he took his concerns to the partner that handled his business, George Levendis, and to the managing partner, Stuart Pape.
"This was at a time when Saudi Arabia was supplying funding for Hamas. I said to Stuart Pape, 'I don't know how you, as a Jew, can sit there and allow your firm to represent a country that is supplying money to Hamas, which is then killing fellow Jews,'" Mr. Gelman said. "That was the very raw way I looked at it."
Mr. Gelman said Mr. Pape promised to divest the Patton Boggs stake in Qorvis and to cut the firm's ties to Saudi Arabia. "They needed some time to extricate themselves," the accountant said.
Mr. Gelman said he waited and waited for word of the separation, but it never came. "From my viewpoint, it was basically a hollow promise," he said.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Pape declined to respond to Mr. Gelman's claim that the firm reneged on its agreement to part company with Qorvis and the Saudis. "I'm not in a position to comment on that," he said.
In a 2002 interview, Mr. Pape said the radio ads, which referred to "midnight raids" by the Israeli military, were not generated by Qorvis. "Those ads, as I understand it, were the product of some individual Arab Americans and others," he told the Forward. The attorney described the link with Qorvis as a "perceived connection."
Several people have told federal prosecutors that the American pro-Arab groups were an unwitting front for the ad campaign, which was organized by Qorvis and the Saudis.
Mr. Pape acknowledged yesterday that his earlier comments on the subject were not accurate. "Those statements were correct based on the facts known to me at the time," he said. "Subsequent facts support a different interpretation."
A Qorvis spokesman declined yesterday to elaborate on an earlier statement predicting that the investigation will be resolved "favorably." The Saudi Embassy did not return a call seeking comment.
While Mr. Gelman was lobbying Patton Boggs from the outside, on the inside several partners were pressing the firm to distance itself from the Saudis and the Saudi-backed radio campaign, sources said.
"The radio ads almost blew up Patton Boggs," said one person privy to the internal discussions.
Partners concerned about the issue, most of whom were Jewish, held several meetings with the firm's management in 2002 and 2003, sources said.
"I remember at an annual meeting of the firm in 2003, there was an effort to bring the Jewish partners together," said an attorney who recently left Patton Boggs, Steven Schneebaum. "Everybody was quite up in arms about this."
One meeting concluded with "an absolute commitment that they were going to disconnect involvement with Qorvis and they were going to ease their way out of Saudi Arabia," according to a person who was present.
Another person involved in the discussions said the firm's best-known partner, Thomas Boggs Jr., took on the task of selling the Qorvis stake, but the sale never happened.
"Tommy did try to sell Qorvis. It wouldn't sell," the insider said. He added that any explicit snub of the Saudis might have cost Patton Boggs all of its business in the Arab world.
Mr. Boggs did not return a call last night seeking comment on that account.
Ultimately, Mr. Gelman pulled his business from Patton Boggs. Mr. Gelman's attorney, Mr. Levendis, left the firm at the end of 2002.
"He was not economically sustainable without Mr. Gelman," Mr. Pape said yesterday. Asked whether Mr. Levendis's departure was related to the debate over Qorvis and the Saudis, Mr. Pape said, "Whether you want to infer something from that is up to you."
Mr. Levendis said yesterday that he agreed not to discuss the reasons for the parting in detail. "I left on amicable terms because of an irreconcilable client conflict," he said.
Several sources said that a partner who was formerly a legal adviser to President Clinton, Lanny Davis, was among those who urged Patton Boggs to cut its ties to the Saudis and Qorvis. However, the sources differed about whether the controversy played a role in his departure from the firm in late 2003.Mr.Davis declined an interview request.
Mr. Schneebaum said his departure from the firm had nothing to do with the dust-up over the Saudis. He said he never expressed any view on the issue. "Nobody seemed interested in explaining it to me," the attorney added.
Most lawyers still at Patton Boggs referred questions about the saga to Mr. Pape. A partner and former counsel to the Republican National Committee, Benjamin Ginsburg, said he was unaware of the flap. "I know nothing about it, had nothing to do with any of it," he said.
Mr. Gelman said he remains disturbed that more of the lawyers at Patton Boggs didn't press the issue. "I had a lot of consternation that the Jewish partners that were there just felt like there was nothing wrong with what they were doing," he said.