Back to Business

When he lost the 1996 presidential race to Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole flew back to Kansas to take a high-paying job with agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland—for whom he promptly began lobbying his former colleagues on the Hill. When he left the governor's mansion in Sacramento, Pete Wilson accepted a seat on the board of directors of the Newport Beach-based Irvine Co.—the powerful real-estate firm whose officials had funded (and even occasionally helped manage) his campaigns and whose land-use decisions were regulated by Wilson appointees.

Now there's Tom Umberg. When he abruptly resigned in February from a high-level job in the White House, the Orange County Democrat walked four blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue—and straight into a plush office and a cushy job with the law firm of Morrison N Foerster.

Like Dole and Wilson, Umberg (who worked for Morrison N Foerster in Orange County in the 1980s) had something to sell: lucrative connections developed while on the government payroll. As deputy drug czar at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Umberg cultivated close ties to U.S. policy-makers and Latin American officials while supervising international drug policy—including America's burgeoning involvement in Colombia's bloody civil war. That latter responsibility led commentator Arianna Huffington to denounce Umberg for his role in putting together Clinton's proposed $934 million aid package to Colombia. In a recent column, Huffington called Umberg the “architect” of Clinton's controversial plan to aid the Colombian government in its war against Marxist rebels and accused him of being a paid lobbyist for Colombia through Morrison N Foerster.

In an interview with the Weekly, Umberg flatly denied he works for Colombia or any other foreign government. He hopes instead to continue his around-the-world crusade against drugs as a high-priced lawyer for private corporations. That's not how Umberg phrased it, of course.

“I have a personal interest in bringing private assistance to public challenges,” he said. “I would like to see Peru, Bolivia and Colombia develop robust economies that don't involve coca or poppy production. If I can be helpful doing that through the private sector, then I'd like to do so.”

When the Weekly first interviewed Umberg a few weeks after he left the White House, he said his upcoming client work involved “helping to build a hydroelectric facility in Peru, working on a telecommunications project in Mexico,” and “assisting in privatization in other places in South America. But I'm just getting started,” he added quickly. “Ask me that question in a month or so, and I may have a totally different story.”

Sure enough, in a May interview following his monthlong business trip to South America, Umberg was less talkative. He complained about Huffington's assertion that he's a lobbyist for Colombia but politely declined to provide the Weekly with a list of his clients. “I'd have to check to see if they want their names in the paper,” he said.

Umberg would name only three of his clients: Global Photon, a company that installs fiber-optic cables in the ocean; Synergenics, a hydroelectric company; and, an Internet firm that does business with government agencies. Umberg said he also works for an Austria-based corporation that produces reflective rubber highway-divider strips. He refused to name the company but said he was helping it market the product in Colombia.

Umberg says he doesn't understand all the fuss about his decision to leave the White House for private practice. “I was what you call a 'pass,'” he explained. “I knew at the end of the Clinton administration that there would be no place for me.”

A cynic might point out that Umberg's timing was impeccable: if he had stuck with his drug-policy job until Clinton leaves office in January, he'd have had no time to cash in on his political connections at the White House. Now Umberg still has six months to help his corporate clients put together multimillion-dollar business deals in South America.

Umberg has built a political career out of matchmaking private businesses with government programs and taxpayer money. In 1990, he beat incumbent Republican Curt Pringle for the 72nd Assembly District seat. One year later, in Sacramento, Umberg broke ranks with fellow Democrats by voting with Republicans to kill a measure that would have banned public financing of Orange County's privately owned toll roads. That vote helped launch a decade-long public-policy disaster that saw millions of public dollars wasted on private toll roads almost nobody used.

“I have to convince Tom Umberg that he's in the wrong party,” Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) told The Orange County Register in 1991. “He even looks like a Republican.”

Now Umberg walks like one, too.

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