The Radical Insider 

As a congressman, Ron Dellums could be counted on to advance a progressive agenda. But his voting record only told part of the story.

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Dellums' new role as the head of a for-profit managed-care company surprised his erstwhile progressive allies. Health-care reform advocate Dr. Howard Waitzkin, a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, was dismayed to see Dellums listed as a featured speaker at the December 1999 Miami Beach conference of Summit on International Managed Care Trends. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund use such summits as forums to argue for the need to privatize public-health systems, especially in Third World countries. To Waitzkin, Dellums' participation signaled a reversal of the views he held as one of the leading congressional advocates of a national health-care system.

Waitzkin says he wrote Dellums urging him not to participate, but never got a reply. "Dellums' role in international health consulting seems to be very retrogressive in view of his marvelous activities on behalf of a national-health program in Congress."

By the time the summit rolled around, Dellums was spending a great deal of time stumping for what he called an AIDS Marshall Plan, designed to raise billions in public and private dollars to combat the disease in Africa. Dellums would tell anyone who listened about the human toll of AIDS. "I think what we're talking about is one of the great moral imperatives of our generation," he said in a 1999 interview with The Washington Post. "We're talking about 21 million people dying from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa over the next ten years. How do you get your mind around that?"

Dellums and his anointed successor, Rep. Barbara Lee, wrote a bill proposing to pump $200 million a year over five years toward fighting AIDS in Africa. Ultimately, the duo's efforts led to the establishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which now has nearly $2 billion in funding pledges from around the world. President Bush included $200 million for the fund in his recent budget proposal, and Congress is now thinking about significantly boosting that figure.

This passionate advocacy on such a tragic issue -- one largely ignored by black political leaders in the past -- seemed like classic Dellums. And that's how most of the press played it -- except for New York-based journalist Doug Ireland, a former Village Voice columnist and contributing editor for In These Times, the progressive biweekly. In an unflattering July 2000 story about Dellums' post-congressional ventures that he wrote for POZ, a magazine devoted to people with HIV, Ireland pointed out that the proposed AIDS trust fund would not be managed by the recipient countries -- but by the World Bank. "And the bank has long pressed for HMOs in developing countries," Ireland wrote. "If the Dellums-Cebrun company persuades South Africa to let it set up HMOs, it stands to make a bundle."

But that opportunity never transpired for Dellums and Cebrun. In October, Healthcare International Management closed its Washington office after its parent companies, Medical Care Management and Access Health Systems, filed for bankruptcy with $54 million more debts than assets. The filing followed the state of Tennessee's decision to cancel its contracts with Cebrun's companies amid complaints from health providers about millions of dollars in unpaid bills.

While the bankruptcy put Dellums out of a job, it didn't put him out of work. After all, he had his growing consulting business to fall back on.

The aging California Building in downtown Oakland hardly looks like the nerve center of a high-powered international consulting firm. But the marquee at the front entrance confirms this is the place: Suite 500, Dellums, Brauer, Halterman & Associates. You won't find it listed in the phone book. But when you've got the name of a legendary retired congressman on your letterhead, you don't need to advertise in the Yellow Pages.

H. Lee Halterman, the firm's general partner and a private attorney, apologized for the mess, cleared a space for his guest, and offered him a cup of coffee. With his frizzy hair and mustache, Halterman looks like a young Albert Einstein. He has been described as Ron Dellums' alter ego, having worked for the man during his entire congressional career.

Halterman said Dellums, Brauer, Halterman began as a firm specializing in strategic government affairs planning. When the trio started their business partnership three years ago, Halterman said they didn't want to cross the line into becoming lobbyists. "It just wasn't how we saw ourselves." Asked why, he replied, "I guess the usual pejorative reasons."

The turning point came when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the president of Haiti, called Dellums and asked the former congressman to help him on Capitol Hill, where his island nation is viewed as a corrupt, leftist irritant. Dellums, a longtime backer of Aristide, couldn't say no. "That changed our lives," Halterman said. "We had to register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which automatically meant we had to register under the Lobbyist Disclosure Act even if we weren't going to do government lobbying. So we decided strategically we weren't going to be a lobbyist for just one client."

Halterman said Dellums and he decided to form their firm after the ex-congressman finished the manuscript for Lying Down with the Lions, which Halterman cowrote. "Shortly after we turn in the book in -- which is now a year after we retired -- Bristol-Myers calls Ron and says, 'We're getting our brains kicked out by South Africa by this AIDS stuff. We're not going to give away the store, but we obviously want to have good relations with South Africa and figure out how to work through this issue.' "

At the time Bristol-Myers executives called Dellums, the drug company, which makes three AIDS drugs, was one of forty pharmaceutical firms suing the South African government to protect its patent rights. In 1997, the South African government passed a law allowing for the importation of cheaper, generic versions of patented AIDS drugs in the country. In retaliation, according to The Wall Street Journal, the pharmaceutical lobby pressured Congress to place a rider in a foreign appropriations bill to temporarily cut off financial aid to South Africa.

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