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A Sibling Symbiosis in the Capitol

A lobbyist for Qatar is sister to a congressman who is a key advocate for the Arab monarchy.

June 17, 2004|Chuck Neubauer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Like many sisters, Tanya Rahall talks to her brother often. But unlike most sisters, she gets paid handsomely to do it.

Rahall makes $15,000 a month lobbying Congress for the tiny Arab country of Qatar. And the person she frequently lobbies is Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), her older brother and one of Qatar's biggest champions in Washington.

Qatar paid her for helping him craft a resolution praising the country for "years of Democratic reform," even though it remained a monarchy without organized political opposition. She has recruited members of Congress for a pro-Qatar caucus that he leads, and accompanied him and other members on a visit to Doha, Qatar.

The Rahalls are the latest example of a growing, unregulated practice in Washington: paying relatives of helpful members of Congress as lobbyists and consultants.

Over the last year, The Times has identified seven senators and four House members with relatives who worked for special interests that the lawmakers aided. The family members -- 10 sons, a daughter, a sister, a wife and two in-laws -- represented clients that included nine major American industries, several foreign corporations and, in the Rahall case, a foreign government.

Rep. Rahall declined to answer specific questions, but said in a written statement that he and his sister had "shared interests in issues important to West Virginia, and in Middle East issues to further America's and West Virginia's interests abroad."

As a result, "our paths cross professionally, but not across any lines appropriately established by law or House rules."

"Given her years of experience, I find her advice, insightful, dedicated, but objective, and useful in fulfilling my responsibilities to the people of West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District," the statement said.

Tanya Rahall, a self-employed government and public relations consultant, said her brother played no role in helping her get the Qatar contract or other clients. "Everything I have gotten I have gotten on my own," she said. "We have both been active on Arab American issues. It is what we care about. I do it for a living."

There are no rules specifically barring members of Congress from acting on behalf of relatives' clients. Indeed, limits on speaking fees and campaign donations have made hiring family one of the few unregulated ways in which special interests can ingratiate themselves with lawmakers.

Since the Times reports, the practice has attracted scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

Senate and House ethics committees have begun fact-finding inquiries at the request of two lawmakers who were the subjects of Times stories, said William B. Canfield, an ethics attorney who is representing them. The House is looking at actions Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) took on behalf of his daughter's public relations clients, Canfield said. The Senate is scrutinizing business deals involving Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), family members and businessmen that he has helped in Washington.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has called for a review of ethics rules for lobbyists, following stories detailing legislation he sponsored that benefited clients of his sons and son-in-law.

Rep. Rahall's official congressional biography does not mention his work on Arab issues. Instead, it focuses on what he has done for West Virginia: protecting coal mining as the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Resources and bringing large amounts of federal highway money to the state as the second senior Democrat on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

But Rahall, 55, is also the most senior of five Arab American lawmakers and is an advocate for Arab countries in a Congress dominated by pro-Israel members.

In 1993, he was the lone House member to vote against a resolution calling for an end to an Arab boycott of Israel. He spent years pressing the State Department to end a ban on travel to Lebanon, where his grandfathers were born. He got his wish in 1997.

In 2001, he was one of 11 members of Congress to vote against a resolution insisting that the Palestinian Authority take steps to end a terrorist campaign -- because, he said at the time, it did not also condemn attacks on Palestinians by Israelis.

He flew to Iraq in 2002 to meet with a top aide to Saddam Hussein in an effort to avert war, and voted against going to war. And he traveled to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad in 2003, and voted against increasing sanctions based on allegations that the country was a state sponsor of terrorism.

Qatar, a small desert monarchy with large gas and oil reserves, also has received help from Rahall in improving its image in the United States.

While Qatar has been a strategic U.S. ally in the Middle East, the State Department's annual reports on the country's human rights have taken the country to task for withholding political freedom from its citizens and basic civil rights from its foreign workers. Noncitizens make up 75% of Qatar's population of 840,290.

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