Thursday, August 20, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup: A Productive Meeting

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 20, 2009

Say what you will about Gov. Bill Richardson’s run for president back in 2007. He came up with some funny lines.

And some of them were intentional.

One quip that always got laughs had to do with diplomatic talks and the language that diplomats use in public. Here’s an example, taken from the transcript of his Oct. 12, 2007, speech at the Politics and Eggs breakfast in Bedford, N.H.:
“They have these summits, the two leaders. They finish the discussion, and the two presidents, they have their flags. I’m talking about all summits, they stand up like this. … And you know, they say, ‘We have just had a very productive meeting.’ By the way, I’ve been in those meetings. When diplomats say they had a productive meeting, it means it didn’t go very well.”

I couldn’t help but think about this Wednesday afternoon after getting an e-mail from the Governor’s Office concerning those discussions Richardson just had with two North Korean diplomats at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe.

“We had productive talks,” Richardson said in the statement.

Uh oh.

(By the way, this isn’t the first time I’ve called the governor on this. In my old blog in February 2008, I pointed to the same campaign quip after Richardson’s office announced “a productive meeting” with state Senate leaders. Fortunately, the state Senate doesn’t have nuclear weapons.)

Productive for Richardson? Around the world, pundits are wondering whether this return to “Green Chile Diplomacy” is a significant sign that relations between North Korea and the U.S. are about to thaw.

Here in New Mexico, pundits are wondering whether the meeting is an omen — an extremely good omen — for Bill Richardson.

“He’s Back!” gushed the headline on political blogger Joe Monahan’s Wednesday post. “Big Bill Is Meeting With North Koreans; Does Santa Fe Summit Lift His Legal Cloud?”

The thinking is that the White House never would have signed off on the North Koreans coming to Santa Fe if a federal grand jury indictment of Richardson or his top aides was looming. (The State Department had to authorize the trip because North Korea and the U.S. don’t have official diplomatic relations.)

The U.S. Justice Department since last year has been investigating the Richardson administration’s dealings with a California company that was hired to handle some state investments and whether that contract is connected with large contributions to Richardson political committees. That investigation derailed the governor’s appointment as President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary.

So does the North Koreans’ visit mean the danger of pay-to-play criminal charges has passed?
Not necessarily, said a former U.S. attorney for New Mexico.

John J. Kelly, who held that position between 1993 and 2000, said Wednesday that he doesn’t have any experience in prosecuting high-ranking political figures. But in a telephone interview, he said, “The tradition in the Justice Department is to have minimal contact with other offices in the executive branch.”

Kelly, now in private practice in Albuquerque, said there would be extensive communication between a U.S. Attorney’s Office and “Main Justice” about such a matter. But, he said, it would be “highly unusual” for the Justice Department to be communicating with the State Department concerning an investigation.

So apparently, we won’t know until we know.