While it may not have the dazzle of the Hollywood version about to premiere on movie screens nationwide, the sequel to Charlie Wilson’s Congressional career stars the high-flying Texan as a big-bucks lobbyist.
The former Democratic Congressman, now 74, for years has enjoyed cult hero status on Capitol Hill as the covert engineer of the American proxy war with the Soviets in 1980s Afghanistan. “Good Time Charlie,” as he was known, maintained a reputation for occasional drug use and romps with showgirls, yet managed to organize the biggest campaign in the history of the CIA.
That story will reach a national audience beginning on Christmas Day with the release of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” with Tom Hanks in the lead role.
But what few even inside the Beltway know is that Wilson stuck around after his 1996 exit from Congress, parlaying his Defense appropriations expertise and foreign policy credentials into a lucrative second career on K Street.
Starting out modestly, joining a firm of friends before hanging out his own shingle, he spent seven years representing a raft of defense contractors. And until 2005, continuing a relationship he forged during his Middle East adventures depicted in the movie, Wilson also served as the top contract lobbyist for Pakistan.
Back in 1996, apparently tired of Congress and eager to start earning some real money, Wilson was ready to jump ship well before the end of his 11th term. Word got out in Democratic circles that he already had lined up a number of clients and was planning to resign.
But Rep. Martin Frost, a fellow Texan and then-chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, urged him to reconsider. “There would have been a special election, and we Democrats have a hard time winning special elections,” Frost said. Wilson acceded, but not without grief. “I remember him telling me, ‘It’s going to cost me $50,000 a month,’” Frost said. “It was an expensive decision, but he did it for the good of the party.”
Wilson, still recovering from heart transplant surgery in September, did not respond to interview requests.
As the Congressman shopped around downtown for his best bet, he consulted frequently with Lindsay and Candy Hooper, a married couple partnered in a lobbying firm focused mostly on tax and energy work. Candy had worked as an aide to Wilson in the 1970s, one of the “Charlie’s Angels,” his famously beautiful team of female staffers. They had remained good friends after Candy left the Hill for a lobbying job — when her father died, Wilson read the eulogy at the funeral — and the lawmaker in turn became friends with her husband after they married in the early 1980s. Now faced with a crush of offers, Wilson turned to them for advice.
“Everybody wanted Charlie. Not just because of the particular business he would bring in, but because of his chemistry. Everybody on the Hill loved to talk to him,” Candy said.
“We talked about what he should expect, and what opportunities were out there for him,” said Lindsay, now a partner with Capitol Tax Partners. As those conversations progressed, it became clear Wilson wanted to join the firm, then called Hooper Hooper Owen & Gould. “He trusted us and knew we were very comfortable with him,” Lindsay said.
As Wilson put it to Candy: “You’re family. I know you won’t screw me.”
In typically modest fashion, he became one of only two principals in the shop without his name on the front door. Candy said that approach defined his work. “Nobody worked harder and was less pretentious or demanding.”
He quickly proved his value, attracting a number of clients from the defense industry and elsewhere. One of the first was IMI Services USA, a subsidiary of Israel’s largest defense company, which Wilson enlisted in the 1980s to help develop an anti-aircraft gun capable of taking down Soviet gunships in Afghanistan.
While details of his appropriations work are not clear, he maintained at least one relationship that likely served him well. According to the 2003 book “Charlie Wilson’s War” by George Crile, on which the movie is based, Wilson was instrumental in blocking an ethics committee probe into Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), his Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense colleague, for his role in the Abscam bribery scandal. Afterward, “a teary Murtha had confided to a colleague that Wilson’s effort had saved his life,” the book reports.
The former lawmaker also relied on a more traditional means of keeping in good favor with his former colleagues — opening his wallet. Though it appears he had never written a political check before leaving the Hill, he has since become prolific. Since 1997, Wilson has given $123,709, with much of it going to defense appropriators, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Wilson also signed up the government of Pakistan, whose leaders had helped finance and facilitate the lawmaker’s effort in Afghanistan. A decade later, they agreed to pay him a hefty $30,000 a month for his consulting services.
If Wilson’s foreign agent reports to the Justice Department are any indication, he earned his retainer. The reports detail an endless flurry of lobbying phone calls and meetings on behalf of the country. During the first half of 1998 alone, he reported lobbying both chambers on nuclear tests by Pakistan and India; working to enhance oversight of the dispute over Kashmir; tracking and preparing briefings on legislation related to human rights, religious persecution, child labor, nuclear proliferation, drug certification and the Central Asian pipeline; monitoring foreign operations spending bills; monitoring media coverage; working to resolve a long-standing dispute over Pakistan’s purchase of American F-16s; shepherding the Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan around the Hill; wrangling Members of Congress to an embassy dinner; and the list goes on. Pakistani officials did not return calls for comment.
In 2001, the founding partners of the firm wanted to go in different directions and the shop “atomized,” Candy said.
Wilson headed out on his own, founding Wilson Associates. He took a number of his best clients with him, including IMI, Lockheed Martin, AgustaWestland, and, of course, Pakistan. Facing fragile health midway through 2004, he largely scaled back, dropping all of his clients except Pakistan.
A year later, when he was ready to fully retire, he worked to find his own replacement on the Pakistan account and settled on Van Scoyoc Associates. “He looked at it as more than just a client,” said Mark Tavlarides, the lead Van Scoyoc lobbyist for Pakistan. “He cares about Pakistan. It’s an extremely important relationship, and one of the most important the U.S. has.”
Tavlarides said he still regularly gets advice from Wilson, now retired with his wife in Lufkin, Texas.