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 Spotlight

  The great betrayal of North Central students


Lanka pays Washington lobbyists to clean her image


President George Bush
and Jaliya Wickremasuriya
(inset) Palitha Kohona

By  Vimukthi Yapa

Rather than address human rights concerns as a responsible democratic government, the Rajapakse regime has taken upon itself to pay millions of tax payers' rupees to foreign lobbyists to whitewash its domestic mess.

To this end, on January 22 this year Sri Lanka's former Ambassador to Washington Bernard Goonetilleke, at the instigation we learn of Foreign Affairs Ministry Secretary Palitha Kohona, was to write to several selected public relations companies stating that the Government of Sri Lanka was looking to appoint a firm to provide strategic lobbying services in the following areas.

Areas of concern

(1) Counteract and mitigate any negative publicity/public relations campaigns including fund raising activities by the LTTE and its front organisation in the US.

(2) Building up a "Positive Image" of Sri Lanka among the Executive Branch, the Congress human rights organisations, opinion makers, think tanks, NGOs and church groups/interfaith religious  groups. (Please see letter elsewhere on this page)

 Further to this, the government (GOSL) recently signed a contract with the American firm - Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP (BHFS) to obtain 'lobbying services' at a cost of approximately  Rs.64.2 million (US$600,000) for a period of one year with effect from June 1, 2008. Moreover, an administrative fee of US$5000 per month was also agreed upon by the GOSL. This of course is excluding all international travel and accommodation bills or other unusual fees (not specified) for a team of lawyers and professionals who may be assigned to represent the Government of Sri Lanka.

Curiously, a cheque for the sum of US$300,000 (aprox Rs.32.1 million) was sent by the Foreign Affairs Ministry as early as May 21 to BHFS as initial payment on the contract. 

Ironically the government is willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying church groups abroad while back home local churches are being torched and attacked by extreme elements instigated by politically motivated monks.  

It would be far more cost effective  if the officers at Sri Lanka's Washington Mission were to perform their duty of maintaining positive relationships with the White House, Congress, Department of State and others rather than shift its burden to lobby firms at the expense of Sri Lanka's suffering public.

Skirting scrutiny

Alas, the task is now Herculian with the likes of Jaliya Wickremasuriya being appointed as Goonetilleke's successor in Washington. An appointment that skirted proper Parliamentary High Posts Committee scrutiny by bringing up the matter during House prorogation, before a depleted committee of just five government ministers, chaired by Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.

This appointment in fact sent shockwaves through the diplomatic and professional community more so because Washington is the very fulcrum of Sri Lanka's diplomatic relations with the world.

And so mediocre was the appointment it fell upon the Foreign Ministry to entreat such a man as Deputy Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda to take up an appointment as deputy ambassador to Washington with head of mission status. This was  the post of deputy head of mission under Wickremasuriya.

Kodagoda was asked to take up the appointment so he could liaise with US officials, lobby members of congress, State and Justice Departments. Kodagoda turned down the offer for personal reasons.

Certainly Sri Lanka will face more tough times ahead. US Congressional leaders have from time to time written both to President Bush and President Rajapakse, urging the  latter to immediately address Sri Lanka's dismal human rights record while calling upon the former to pressure the Sri Lankan government with economic sanctions.

Many of the senators and House representatives who have signed letters have been a part of the Sri Lankan caucus within Congress. Recently the House moved a resolution calling for an international monitoring presence in Sri Lanka.

The Head of the European Union Parliamentary Delegation that visited Sri Lanka last week, Robert Evans, warned last Friday that the Sri Lankan government will have to face the consequences due to its deteriorating human rights record.

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, told the Rediff news website Friday that while Washington fully recognises the terrorist threat Sri Lanka continues to face from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it should act like a democracy and protect all of its citizens.

"We recognise the threat, we recognise that we have to fight against terrorism, but we also think very strongly as we always have that Sri Lanka is fundamentally a democracy and that a democracy needs to be extended to all its citizens," he had reportedly said.

It is obvious then that the Foreign Secretary himself, Palitha Kohona, was fully aware of the formidable task that lay before the Washington lot. Nonetheless, the government continues to appoint unqualified, inefficient relatives to their most important missions.

The public pays

And so dismal is the lot of the Sri Lankan public that now it has to pay out of its own coffers to prop up the image of a government that sends nincompoops to man its first lines of defence - the diplomatic missions, and will not address the deteriorating human rights record at home. Instead, they seek to further burden the poor of this land by spending millions on Public Relations (PR) and Government Relations (GR) companies.

And here's how it was done in Washington. Former Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke who just this Friday assumed the role of Chairman, Sri Lankan Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management, was to first call for proposals from PR/GR companies by firing off a letter to several targeted companies in Washington DC on January 22, 2008.

The four page letter which attached Terms of Reference called on the companies to send in a comprehensive proposal by February 5 this year, which included :

(1) Experience in representing foreign governments in similar lobbying work in the US;

(2) Strategic Plan of Action that would be pursued in achieving stated objectives; and

(3) Monthly charges

The contact for this enterprise according to Goonatilleke's letter was none other than Seyed A.Z. Moulana, Minister (Economic). Moulana of course shot to fame as the UNP MP who brought down Karuna Amman from his eastern hide-out in Batticaloa and put him up at the JAIC Hilton in Colombo following his split from the LTTE. When this came to light he resigned from the UNP and thereafter fled the country to the United States pleading a security threat.

Thereafter he was appointed by President Rajapakse as the minister in charge of economic affairs at the Washington Mission, though his diplomatic status, it is learnt, is still in question given his former humanitarian status.   

It is learnt that only three firms responded. That is Patton Boggs - one of the best known lobbying companies in the US, BGR International - which describes itself as the premier bipartisan government relations, strategic consulting, mergers & acquisitions and investment firm in Washington D.C. and founded  in 1991, and Foley and Hoag - a law firm.

According to informed sources in Washington, Patton Boggs is currently ranked number one in the lobbying business.

Target audience

The Terms of Reference (TOR) stated in detail the target audiences of the enterprise which included the White House, National Security Council, the Departments of State, Defence, Justice, Commerce, Treasury, USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

It also specified as a target Capitol Hill and Congressional committees with special emphasis on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Appropriations Committee and the Sri Lanka Caucus in the House.

The TOR also looked at leading print media such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, radio, cable and regional and local media outlets. (Please see elsewhere on this page for Terms of Reference)

Ironically, the TOR was one that should have been handed over to the Mission in Washington with able men and women at its helm. An efficient team in Washington would have saved the country millions of rupees and handled the target audience itself - rupees that have now been spent on a firm which sources allege the Government of Sri Lanka did not even properly assess before granting the contract.

During Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's brief government in 2001-2003 it was the personal relationship that existed between the Washington Embassy and the Department of State at the time that enabled such a close bond between the two nations. It was the personal contact with such a man as Richard Armitage at the time that gave Sri Lanka the edge and kept this country on the US radar screen in a positive way.

This did not happen simply because millions were spent on lobbyists. It happened because proper, qualified men and women ran the embassies with the ability to develop close contact with relevant target audiences including the White House and Congress.

Enter BHFS

Somewhere between February 5 - the deadline for proposals and March 11, discussions had got underway between another totally new company called Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS). Negotiations now took place  between the Deputy Chief of Mission Tissa Wijeratne and this new company.

Sources allege the company was not even an original bidder and had been brought in without evaluation. This newspaper sent a series of relevant questions regarding this contract to the Washington Embassy to which we received no reply up to the time of publication. We will publish their response, if any, next week.

The BHFS law firm describes itself as a unique law firm that allows its attorneys, legislative consultants and legal staff to stay ahead of their clients' needs and provide them with the resources they require to meet their business objectives.  However Washington sources allege the Government of Sri Lanka did no proper evaluation of the company to ascertain if the company was suitable to deliver as specified in the TOR.

Nonetheless on March 11, BHFS wrote to Palitha Kohona as follows:

"You have asked us, and we have agreed, subject to our firms conflicts of interest check, to act as government relations counsel for the Government of Sri Lanka."

Wither PR?

The letter itself clearly talks of government relations and does not mention PR in any way.

It goes on to say, "Pursuant to this agreement we will advise and assist the Government of Sri Lanka with issues related to Sri Lanka and the United States of America. Involving activities in Congress and the Executive Branch, including seeking meetings and consultations for representatives of Sri Lanka, to include its President and other government officials, from time to time, in order to enhance the awareness, understanding and needs of Sri Lanka which is the oldest democracy in South Asia and to strengthen the relationship between Sri Lanka and the USA. The purpose of this letter is to confirm the terms and conditions of Brownsteins Hyatt Farbor Schreck's (BHFS) representation of the Government of Sri Lanka's interests."

According to the letter of engagement signed on April 18, 2008 by Alfred E. Mottur - attorney at law on behalf of BHFS and Palitha Kohona on behalf of the Foreign Affairs Ministry the agreement is to be for a period of three years effective April 1, 2008 (this date was later changed to June 1 in a subsequent letter).

The BHFS retainer per month would be US$50,000 (Rs.5.35 million) for the first 12 months with the sum of  US$600,000 for the first six months payable at the execution of the agreement. GOSL and BHFS would agree on the fees for year two and three 30 days before the end of the first year of the contract. 

Circumvented

In this April 1 letter, BHFS emphasises that it provides a wide array of legal and public policy services to many clients around the world. "These services include legislative and administrative representation on matters that may affect your interests, directly or indirectly. Therefore as a condition of our undertaking to represent any client on a particular matter as described in this engagement letter we hereby ask you as we do each of our clients to wave objection to any conflict of interest that may be deemed to be created by our representation of other clients in legislative or administrative policy matters that are unrelated to the specific representation we have been asked to undertake on your behalf," the letter of engagement accepted to and signed by Kohona and Mottur states.

By May 21, Ambassador Goonetilleke writes to Alfred Mottur of BHFS stating he has been instructed by the Foreign Affairs Ministry to make the initial payment of US$ 300,000 and that notwithstanding the effective date of agreement as per discussions between BHFS and Deputy Chief of Mission Tissa Wijeratne, the new effective date of the agreement was to be June 1. A cheque for the said sum was enclosed with the letter for the period June 1 to October 31 2008. (See letter)

As per US regulations such agreements require that BHFS register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act with the US Department of State.

A copy of the Registration Statement is then provided to the Secretary of State, and are routinely made available to other agencies, departments and Congress. The Attorney General also transmits a semi annual report to Congress which lists the names of all agents registered under the Act and the foreign principals they represent.  

Accordingly by June 12 BHFS had lodged their registration statement No.5870 naming as their foreign principal the Government of Sri Lanka and the address of the foreign principal as "c/o Dr. Palitha Kohona, Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic Building, Colombo 1."

A description of the activities engaged in by the registrant went as follows: "Advise and assist Government of Sri Lanka with issues related to Sri Lanka and the United States. Proposed activities include meetings and consultations for representatives of Sri Lanka with members of Congress and executive branch officials in order to enhance US awareness and understanding of Sri Lanka and to strengthen the relationship between the two nations."

Political activity engaged in by the registrant has been described in the statement as "Meet with Members of Congress and Executive Branch officials to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Sri Lanka."

Answers needed

Many questions arise. Did the embassy appoint a Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) and who headed this committee? Was the evaluation sent to the Foreign Affairs Ministry for approval?

If BHFS was not an original bidder how were they able to secure the contract? While the other three bidders responded in collaboration with PR firms as the Terms of Reference specified public relations (PR) and government relations (GR) lobbying BHFS does not specify any PR activity as per documents.

A payment of US$300,000 was made up front in May though contract is effective June 1. Isn't this irregular? Has the embassy evaluated BHFS performance of deliverables before making payment and especially as per Terms of Reference objectives of building a positive image among the executive branch, administration, congress, HR organisations, opinion makers, think tanks, NGOs, church groups/interfaith religious groups?

Be that as it may, the bottom line is this. Whether BHFS is the most suitable lobby company or otherwise is immaterial to the argument that the Government of Sri Lanka has no business spending public funds willy nilly on lobbyists while continuing to flout the rule of law and the rules of war with impunity.

It has no moral right to use public funds to fatten the pockets of professional lobbyists in the United States when it can easily appoint able men and women who are qualified to its Mission in Washington whose duty it would be to work as per the TOR.

It is astounding that the government would pay lobbyists millions of rupees to do the work for its ambassador while he too is maintained on public funds and sits about smiling prettily, much like his first cousin back home.

 


The great betrayal of North Central students


Berty Premalal Dissanayake

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

The people of Raja Rata are now conferring a dubious honour on the government's North Central Province (NCP) chief ministerial candidate, Berty Premalal Dissanayake for a series of alleged misdeeds committed, ranging from the renovation of tanks at great cost though unusable in condition, to abusing funds utilised for printing examination papers.

While the so called tank renovation programme has turned into a nightmare for the NCP populace who are now left with more mud holes and dozens of messed up irrigation tanks that were bisected to create ponds out of them,  the printing of examination papers at immense cost and making students pay for them, has raised many an eyebrow.

According to top Provincial Education Department sources, the allocation so far utilised for printing examination papers for the second term examination of NCP schools is Rs.  6.1 million.

Ugly deed

The ugly deed, well established by now is that the money reportedly was used not to print examination papers for the second termin schools in the province, but allegedly to print election posters of the former chief minister who is seeking a third term as chief minister of the province. This aspect was given sufficient television coverage by at least two private television channels recently.

Accordingly, the PC's entire allocation was a massive Rs.9.4 million for the printing of question papers out of which Rs. 6 million was disbursed on July 12.

The provincial education authorities decided on a package containing six question papers to be provided to each student sitting the second term test.

The cost of a question paper was calculated to be Rs.5 for printing on good paper and Rs.3 for substandard paper. As such, the cost of a package of question papers was to be around Rs.30.

Over 10,000 students

There are some 10,000 students in Grades 6 to 11 in the North Central Province. Hence, the cost of question paper packages for all these students should rightfully be around Rs.3.3 million.

Despite a full allocation for the purpose, teachers and anxious parents raised questions when certain schools imposed a fee of Rs. 50 on students for the set of question papers.

Nevertheless, some schools had not received question papers. One example is the Nochchiyagama Model School that received only a single question paper for Grade 11 Sinhala which had to be photocopied in a frenzy by the teachers.

And the students were charged for the photocopies made, according to angry parents who spoke to The Sunday Leader.

While the examination papers suffered such a fate, parents began alleging that the money so collected was being used by Berty Premalal Dissanayake's campaign managers to print his posters, a charge Dissanayake vehemently denies.

Campaign

Responding to the scandal, JVP's chief ministerial aspirant Wasantha Samarasinghe pledged to launch an immediate campaign against the collection of money from students for examinations and further demanded that legal action be taken against the wrongdoers.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader on the basis of anonymity, Dissanayake's poster printers confirmed that a balance payment was due but refused to divulge further details. For this, JVP candidate Wasantha Samarasinghe's response was, "The payments had to be stopped because the JVP launched a massive campaign against this. The money was unaccounted for."

There are many other issues that compound the examination paper scandal. The term test that was to commence on July 15 had the printing order signed by Additional Secretary (Development), Education Department, North Central Province. The instructions were issued by the Department on June 12, 2008.

Scheduled dates

The Additional Secretary also issued instructions with regard to holding the examination and the scheduled dates for the examinations were from July 15 to July 23.  But sadly, the printed question papers did not reach schools until July 21, six days after the scheduled commencing date, making the entire examination process a farce.

On the eve of July 21, an amended timetable was hand delivered to school administrations with the instructions being to commence the examination from the very next day, the 22nd up to 29.

With some discrepancies about the printing cost of a single question paper, the fact that the examination papers were not printed by the Government Printer was also brought into focus.

It was brought to the attention of the education authorities that the question papers did not bear the Government Printer's logo and had been printed privately.

Printing machines sold

According to sources from the north central administration itself, the NPC's printing had to be done elsewhere as the printing machines were also sold.

The Lanka Guru Sangamaya  dredged the issue when two payments allegedly for the printing of papers were made. The cheques were drawn in the NCP printer's name when there was none!

As the money was unaccounted for, the matter was brought to the notice of Governor of the NCP, Karunaratne Divulgane .

The two payments of Rs.1 million and Rs. 5 million respectively were made on the same day.  Both,   Bank of Ceylon, Anuradhapura Main Branch  cheques bearing numbers 956593 and 956572 had been drawn in favour of Director, Provincial Council Printing Department  on July 12, 2008. 

Payment stopped

When the issue blew up in the face of the already tainted NCP administration, Governor of the Province, Karunaratne Divulgane quickly moved to stop the payments.

With the examination paper printing scam hitting news headlines, an audit query is now on.

School administrators and parents in the meantime have a series of questions for those responsible for the scandal.

For starters, despite the money spent, the examination papers had been printed on low quality paper similar to a half sheet in thickness.

The schools also did not receive all the papers with many a school complaining of being short supplied.

According to school teachers from Anuradhapura who spoke to The Sunday Leader, they had been  instructed to photocopy the examination papers where they were in short supply with the Department pledging to reimburse the photocopying expenses.

No papers

Some of the question papers were printed on both sides of  A3 size paper, they alleged. When the Buddhism papers arrived for the July 29 test, there were no papers for Catholic students to answer despite the NCP having a  Catholic student population of 3,000.

Likewise, the history paper arrived at 10. 30 am, well past the examination time with at least 150 schools in the province not receiving the paper, teachers further alleged.

The Lanka Guru Sangamaya formally complained to the Governor of the NCP, Karunaratne Divulgane on July 25 in writing and copied the same to the Finance Commission and the Department of Education demanding a full investigation into the examination paper drama.

Letters of appointment

In the meantime, the Lanka Guru Sangamaya on Friday recorded yet another victory at a time when the UPFA's main candidate is attempting to use more and more public servants for his campaign.

The association successfully prevented the UPFA chief ministerial candidate from calling newly appointed teachers in the NCP to the candidate's home to hand over appointment letters.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, President, Lanka Guru Sangamaya, Joseph Stalin said that Director - Provincial Education, NCP has summoned the new appointees to 'Senasuma,' the private residence of Berty Premalal Dissanayake and said that every step would be taken to prevent such abusive attempts to politicise the education sector.

They formally complained to the Department of Education and the Election Commissioner's office on Friday and were rewarded when authorities instructed that such a meeting - involving teachers - should not be convened at the candidate's residence.

Payments stopped - Governor

North Central Province Governor, Karunaratne Divulgane admitted that payments had to be stopped pending an internal audit but refused to make any statement about the examination paper printing scandal.

Baseless allegations - Berty

UPFA chief ministerial candidate, Berty Premalal Dissanayake said that he has also learned that some problems were there with regard to the examination papers, but said he had no hand in any scandal and an inquiry was underway.

As for the teachers being summoned to his residence, he said it was natural for people from all walks of life to support a candidate. "I was not forcing them. Those who don't wish to attend the meeting won't come, but those who want to work with us will come. I seen no problem in that."

 


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