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Boehner’s Panama Connections

Last December, House Minority Leader John Boehner led a Congressional delegation to Panama, an event that marked a kind of reunion for his former staff members who worked together in the House Republican Conference office in the late 1990s.

The four-day trip was built around an agenda of talks on free trade and drug trafficking, but it also served as an opportunity for the Ohio Republican and his chief of staff, Paula Nowakowski, to reconnect socially with Barry Jackson, his previous chief of staff who also was in Panama at the time on a personal trip. In addition, the Boehner party was greeted in Panama by someone they knew well: Demetrio Papadimitriu, a former Boehner staffer widely known as Jimmy, who is the top aide to Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.

Nowakowski, Jackson and Papadimitriu worked together on the staff of the House Republican Conference in the late 1990s when Boehner was the Conference chairman. Boehner was recently elected Speaker for the 112th Congress.

Boehner’s office wouldn’t release the itinerary or details of the cost of the trip, though other Members who went issued press releases touting the “fact-finding mission” as a useful visit with a democratic ally in need of a new trade agreement. Indeed, the free-trade issue is a significant one for Panama, which hired a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm to help the country sharpen its messaging strategy.

The firm it hired, also in late 2009, is HDMK, the communications shop of Terry Holt and Chad Kolton, two more alumni of Boehner’s Conference staff. HDMK doesn’t lobby Congress on behalf of Panama, but it does represent the country’s interests in the U.S. and this spring got an opinion piece written by the Panamanian president advocating a trade agreement placed in a Capitol Hill newspaper.

HDMK filed forms with the Justice Department earlier this year indicating that the firm began representing Panama in the U.S. in January, but Holt told Roll Call the relationship began a few months earlier.

Holt said he visited Panama in June 2009 and “discussed at that time helping Panama reshape its image,” and in October 2009 “we were brought on formally to advise the ministry and the president” on “public statements, speeches and communications.”

Holt said Papadimitriu hired HDMK “because of our long-standing relationship” and the firm’s ability to do the communications outreach the government was seeking in the U.S.

Papadimitriu now holds the Cabinet-level position of minister of the presidency, essentially the equivalent of a White House chief of staff.

Roll Call’s request to Martinelli’s press office for an interview with Papadimitriu was denied.

“We have been unable to include the requested interview in his agenda,” the press office replied. “Please feel free to contact Terry Holt of HDMK, who handles public relations in Washington for the Panamanian government.”

Holt said Papadimitriu was the driving force behind the December Boehner CODEL.

“The minister arranged the CODEL through official channels,” Holt said. “He communicated with Boehner’s chief of staff at the time, Paula” Nowakowski.

Nowakowsi traveled to Panama with the CODEL in December, but she died suddenly in January of a heart attack at age 46.

Holt said neither he nor Kolton was in Panama at the time of the CODEL.

But Jackson was.

Jackson served as Boehner’s chief of staff in the late 1990s before joining the White House of President George W. Bush, where he was a top aide to political adviser Karl Rove. Jackson left the White House at the end of the Bush administration and, according to his most recent financial disclosure form, worked as a consultant for the Bristol, Va., mining and natural resources firm United Co., as well as a few other part-time jobs.

A Republican leadership aide confirmed that Jackson was in Panama at the time of the CODEL and met socially with Boehner during the trip.

“He was in Panama on a personal trip prior to the arrival of the CODEL and was still in Panama after the CODEL left. He did not participate in any official CODEL meetings.”

The Panamanian newspaper La Prensa quoted Papadimitriu this spring as saying that Jackson came to Panama only as a friend, was not paid to be there and did not influence Panamanian foreign policy.

Days after Nowakowski’s death, Jackson returned to Boehner’s payroll as his chief of staff.

The Republican leadership aide said the December CODEL was originally scheduled to include both Panama and Colombia — “the two countries we then had pending free-trade agreements with” — but the Colombia portion was canceled because of a schedule conflict.

Shortly before the trip, Boehner and other GOP leaders met with President Barack Obama and urged him to take quick action to pass free-trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, and they followed up with a letter making the same point.

Other Members traveling on Boehner’s CODEL were Republican Reps. Kevin Brady (Texas), David Dreier (Calif.), Devin Nunes (Calif.), Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) as well as Foreign Affairs ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

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