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Wall Street Journal, Feb 9, 2009



President Barack Obama's former campaign manager intends to give away the fee he received from a paid private speech he made Monday in the oil-rich but authoritarian nation of Azerbaijan.

The speech was arranged by lobbyists working with a group that has ties to the Azerbaijan government, according to people familiar with the matter. But a close associate of David Plouffe said he only learned of their involvement after he had already embarked for the Caspian Sea nation.

Mr. Plouffe now intends to donate his speaking fee, which the associate said is in the range of $50,000, to groups that advocate democratization in the turbulent post-Soviet states of the region around the Caspian and Caucasus mountain range. Mr. Plouffe also plans to share the contents of the speech with opposition groups.

U.S. officials said Mr. Plouffe coordinated his talks with American officials in the region and that his message about the uses of the Internet for democratic organizing advances longstanding U.S. policy. But they added that the Azerbaijan government has long sought to legitimize itself by hosting prominent Americans, often with the help of Washington lobbyists.

The country, in the Caucasus region, is in the midst of a campaign over a referendum set for next month that would amend the constitution to lift term limits on President Ilham Aliyev. Mr. Aliyev assumed the post after the 2003 death of his father Haydar Aliyev, the country's first president after gaining independence.

Azerbaijan is a key U.S. ally but the State Department has also criticized the country for its poor record on human rights and free elections.

Mr. Plouffe holds no U.S. government positions but controls the remnants of Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign organization, which he built and oversaw. His speech at a local university was sponsored by a local nongovernmental organization with ties to the Azerbaijan government.

"I'm here as a private citizen, so all I'm doing is talking about elections, and the Internet and democracy, and to talk about our election," Mr. Plouffe told a reporter from Radio Free Europe who wasn't admitted to the speech.

Mr. Plouffe's appearance in Azerbaijan was arranged by a Washington-based lobbying firm called Bob Lawrence & Associates, according to records and interviews. The company lists Azerbaijan among its clients on its Web site. People with knowledge of the speech said the appearance was arranged by the Lawrence firm through Mr. Plouffe's agent, the Washington Speakers Bureau. A person answering the phone at the Lawrence firm said no one was available for comment. A spokesman for the Washington Speakers Bureau couldn't be reached.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Mr. Plouffe's visit was entirely private. "He's not there at the behest of, and not delivering a message on behalf of, the president of the United States," he said. "If the president had a message for Azerbaijan, he'd pick up the phone." 

Mr. Plouffe began offering himself as a public speaker recently through the Washington Speakers Bureau, which on its Web site says the consultants' "fees vary based on event location." The Azerbaijan speech by Mr. Plouffe, according to one person who attended, dealt with using the Internet in elections and he didn't address the country's domestic political issues.

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