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, according to St. Louis Post Dispatch.
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.
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.”
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.”