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Lucrative Deals for a Daughter of Politics

Karen Weldon, whose dad is a Pennsylvania congressman, is a lobbyist for three foreign clients who need his help, and get it.

February 20, 2004|Ken Silverstein, Chuck Neubauer and Richard T. Cooper | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Karen Weldon, an inexperienced 29-year-old lobbyist from suburban Philadelphia, seemed an unlikely choice for clients seeking global public relations services.

Yet her tiny firm was selected last year for a plum $240,000 contract to promote the good works of a wealthy Serbian family that had been linked to accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.

Despite a lack of professional credentials, she had one notable asset -- her father, U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who is a leading voice in Washington on former Eastern Bloc affairs.

She got the contract after he championed the efforts of two family members, Dragomir and Bogoljub Karic, to win U.S. visas from the State Department, which so far has refused them entry.

Intelligence officials warned Weldon that the brothers were too close to Milosevic, who is accused of leading the "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslav federation.

But the congressman has praised the Karics, who own a vast empire of banking, telecommunication and other firms, as model business leaders and humanitarians. He has portrayed them as victims of faulty intelligence reports and, last month, asked the CIA to sit down with them and sort things out. He has repeatedly pressed the State Department to give them visas.

Karen Weldon said her father "developed a rapport" with the Karics and introduced her to them. But her firm, Solutions North America Inc., won the consulting contract on its merits, she said. Her father declined to answer questions for this article.

The congressman also has gone to bat for at least two of Solutions' other clients, both struggling Russian companies.

Together, the three contracts are worth almost $1 million a year to her firm for services that have included joining her father on congressional trips and in meetings with clients.

The Weldons are the latest example of special interests hiring relatives of important members of Congress as lobbyists and consultants. Over the last year, The Times has identified 11 other House members and 17 senators with relatives who lobby or consult, many of them for clients the members have helped through legislative or other action.

Congressional ethics rules provide few barriers to the practice. They do not forbid members of Congress from helping companies or others who are paying their relatives.

But Weldon has brought his daughter so deeply into his official activities that they sometimes appear to be working in tandem.

For example:

* After a Russian aerospace manufacturer hired Karen Weldon's firm for $20,000 a month plus 10% of any new business it generated, Rep. Weldon pitched the company's saucer-shaped drone to the U.S. Navy, which signed a letter of intent to invest in the technology. And Weldon, who chairs a subcommittee that oversees $60 billion in military acquisitions, has been working to get funding for the project, Navy officials say. A lawyer for Solutions said the firm did not collect the finder's fee and it was later removed from the contract. Federal law bars companies from paying commissions to lobbyists on government contracts.

* The congressman helped round up 30 congressional colleagues for a dinner at the Library of Congress to honor the chairman of a Russian natural gas company, Itera International Energy Corp., that had just agreed to pay his daughter's firm $500,000 a year to "create good public relations." Records show Solutions North America helped arrange the privately funded affair for the company, which has been trying to improve its image with U.S. officials after questions were raised about its acquisition of vast natural gas fields in post-Soviet Russia.

* Karen Weldon's firm paid for her father's chief of staff to take a "fact-finding" trip to Serbia, where he met with U.S. Embassy officials about the Karics' visa problems. The congressman approved the arrangement, travel records show. House ethics rules bar members or staff from taking official trips paid for by lobbyists or registered agents of foreign companies. The chief of staff, Michael J. Conallen Jr., said he reimbursed Solutions with his own money last week after The Times raised questions about the trip.

Conallen said the congressman's actions on behalf of Karen Weldon's clients posed no ethical concerns.

"I just don't think there's anything strange about it," he said. "If Curt wanted to he could snap his fingers and divert a lot of business to Karen, and that hasn't happened."

Karen Weldon has a partner in Solutions, Charles P. Sexton Jr., 67, the former finance chairman of Rep. Weldon's campaigns. Neither has lobbied Weldon nor asked for his help, Conallen said.

"The fact that they have contracts with these clients hasn't influenced anything Curt has done," he said.

The congressman was advocating for the Karics and other Eastern European business interests long before his daughter opened her firm, Conallen said.

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