Rep. Jeff Flake has said that his work as a Mormon missionary in Southern Africa in the early 1980s sparked his interest in foreign affairs. But what the Arizona Republican Senate candidate doesn’t often speak about is what he did after returning to the United States: work as a Washington lobbyist for an African uranium mine with financial ties to Iran.
Between 1990 and 1991, Flake was a registered foreign agent for Rossing Uranium, a company which operates a mine in Namibia that is among the world’s largest suppliers of the nuclear fuel. He earned between $5,000 and $7,000 per month opening doors in the nation’s capital and promoting the firm, according to records obtained by National Journal.
Flake’s little-known time in the influence industry stands in contrast to his carefully cultivated image as a Washington outsider. Twice, Washingtonian magazine ranked him as the No. 1 “enemy of lobbyists” in town—largely for his unrelenting crusades in the House against congressional earmarks. A 60 Minutes profile in 2006 likened Flake to Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The largely untold lobbying chapter of Flake’s story provides context to his political profile as he seeks promotion to the Senate. The Arizonan insists he has never tried to hide his lobbying. “It’s certainly been a point of pride for me that I helped the country develop economically,” he said in an interview.
The story begins in 1989, as Namibia was on the cusp of independence. Flake, then the executive director of a group called the Foundation for Democracy in Namibia, moved there to monitor the fledgling nation’s transition away from South African apartheid rule. On the House floor in 2004, he described that experience as the rare chance “to see a country draft its first constitution and actually look to the future with hope and optimism.”
He came back to Washington in 1990 and launched a consulting firm, Interface Public Affairs; he signed up the Rossing uranium mine, one of the new nation’s economic drivers, as a client. As its advocate in Washington, Flake undertook to “help introduce the corporation and its citizenship activities,” according to Justice Department records, and “to promote the image of the client.”
Rossing had a controversial history. The company had operated the Namibian mine since the 1970s. Anti-apartheid and antinuclear protesters had long criticized its operations. And a 1982 report from the United Nations Council for Namibia described “brutal and unsafe conditions” for workers there, and said that whites and blacks were treated differently. “Rossing can guarantee its mine a plentiful supply of cheap labor because it takes advantage of the apartheid system,” the report said.
Flake signed on as the mine’s representative a month after Namibia achieved independence. His job was to ensure that sanctions enacted by state and local governments in the U.S. didn’t prevent the sale of Rossing “uranium to some of the utilities around the country,” he said.
Gabrielle Hecht, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and the author of the book Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade, said that the Rossing mine “had a mixed record in 1991,” when Flake worked for the company. “Its occupational health record was being very furiously challenged at that time on an international scale—and he would have known that,” said Hecht, who has been to the Rossing site.
But Flake, who had also had been to the mine, said he knew of no such problems. “If they had issues in the past, those were certainly in the past,” he said. (The mine now has a relatively strong labor and safety record, Hecht said.)
More recently, the Rossing mine has come under scrutiny for its financial ties to Iran. While the firm Rio Tinto owns 69 percent of the mine, the Iranian Foreign Investment Co., which the Treasury Department describes as a “wholly owned” subsidiary of the Tehran regime, holds a 15 percent stake.
Iran has held its share of the company since the 1970s, said Rio Tinto spokesman Illtud Harri.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank, noted that in the 1990s the Iranian regime “was not a friend of the United States; it was an enemy.” He added, “It’s a question of judgment when you represent a company that is owned in part by Iran.”
Flake said he was unaware that Iran owned part of the mine. Indeed, his 1990 federal filing states that Rossing was not “owned,” “financed,” “controlled,” or “subsidized in part” or whole by a foreign government, although Iran and Namibia both held stakes in the mine. When asked this week about having worked for a company partially owned by Iran, Flake said, “I didn’t know it at the time, so I don’t know how I could have thoughts on it now.”
Today, Iran’s stake in the uranium mine has drawn attention. “We are aware of a small, passive Iranian investment in the Rossing mine,” said State Department spokeswoman Hilary Fuller Renner. “Rio Tinto and the government of Namibia ensure that none of the mine’s products go to Iran.”
Harri said that the company has “taken steps” to alleviate concerns. “Iran does not receive uranium from the mine,” he said, “and has no access to associated technology or its profits.”
Disputes over the Rossing mine’s Iranian connection have spilled onto the House floor. Another Rio Tinto-owned enterprise, Resolution Copper, has pressed for a federal land-swap in Flake’s home state to mine for copper there. Legislation to enact the exchange passed the House last fall.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., objected to the measure in a floor speech, linking Rio Tinto, Iran, and Rossing. He pointed angrily at a poster-sized picture of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Flake voted for the land-swap legislation and spoke in favor of it twice. “Many of us have worked for years on this,” he said in one speech. “Jobs will be created. This is a great bill.” Flake did not mention that he once worked as a representative for the Rossing mine, insisting it was “absolutely not” significant and that the proposed Rio Tinto copper mine would create Arizona jobs.
Flake’s work for Rossing was not his only stint in Washington’s influence sector. Between Flake’s missionary work in 1982-83 and his 1989 trip to Namibia, he worked at law firm Smoak, Shipley & Henry, whose principals, Marion Smoak and Carl Shipley, had ties to the South African-controlled regime in Namibia during apartheid.
There’s no evidence that Flake ever supported apartheid, but he did work as an administrative assistant and later a registered foreign agent for a group called the Namibia News Bureau, operated out of Smoak and Shipley’s offices, federal records show. Bruce Brager, who was the director of the Namibia News Bureau at the time, described Flake in an interview as “very dedicated” to his job. “His work was lobbying on Capitol Hill,” Brager recalled.
For those who have tracked Flake’s career, the biggest surprise is less the exact nature of Flake’s work in the influence industry and more that he did such work at all. This year, his campaign launched a microsite, MrFlakeTakesonWashington.com, to capitalize on his crusader status.
While Wil Cardon, Flake’s rival in the Arizona Senate race, is pounding him as a “Washington insider” Flake says he is not worried that his lobbying past will prove a liability.
“That dog don’t hunt.”
This article appears in the April 18, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.