Lebanese leader vexed over Powell lecture fee buzz

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell received a large sum of money to deliver a lecture financed by a senior Lebanese official just five days before the election — when it was widely assumed that Powell would be appointed secretary of state if George W. Bush won — according to an unnamed source close to the official.

Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares paid for Powell's half-hour, extemporaneous Nov. 2 speech at Tufts University outside of Boston, via an annual lecture series in his name that he has endowed since 1991, according to the source. Fares has since lashed out at the Jerusalem Post, who broke the story, and has criticized the U.S. media who also gave the report attention.

In a statement released Tuesday, the billionaire businessman with close ties to the Syrian government accused the "Zionist lobby" of spreading "distortion and lies."

"It seems the Zionist lobby in the United States and its agents in the region were displeased and worried that certain Lebanese and Arab personalities have a friendly relationship with some senior officials of the new American administration," Fares wrote.

"Even before the president-elect and his administration took office, they began spreading distortion and lies with the aim of casting doubts on the relationship which specifically links Issam Fares with those officials."

A non-partisan watchdog group that tracks money in politics and its effect on policy said such transactions between Powell and Fares raise ethical questions.

"Anytime somebody is taking speaking fees or receiving money that comes from a source that they are going to be involved with in their official function, it is a concern," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Fares, a Tufts trustee and top donor, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university that same day, is close friends with former President George Bush and has a history of cultivating Republican contacts.

The source close to Fares reported that Powell received $200,000 for the lecture. However, Powell's spokesman, Bill Smullen, would only confirm that Tufts paid Powell for the lecture with money from the Fares endowment, but declined to say how much he was paid, and called the $200,000 figure "grossly overstated."

"For the last seven-plus years General Powell has made his living on the speaking circuit and it has been his practice not to disclose the fees as they are typically paid to him. All of that is going to be revealed at the time of his confirmation hearings," the spokesman said.

The secretary of state-designate is to present financial disclosure forms at his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 16, including all income sources over the past several years.

Asked if he saw a conflict of interest in Powell taking money from Fares, Smullen said: "This was not a speech that was unique to the university or to the series. He had been asked far in advance of the date on which he spoke, and to try to connect some dots that are not connectable is not fair here."

Tufts officials did not return calls for comment.

Fares was appointed deputy prime minister on Oct. 26 by newly elected Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. He is known to be close to the powerful chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Ghazi Kenaan.

Several years ago when Bush toured the Persian Gulf, he flew on Fares' private jet. In 1999 Fares invited former secretary of state James Baker and former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Israel Edward Djerejian to visit Beirut and Damascus. Djerejian has been tapped for a high-ranking position dealing with Middle East affairs in the new administration and Baker is a key adviser to the president-elect.

An editorial published in Lebanon's English-language Daily Star a few days before the U.S. election urged Arab countries to quickly build bridges with the next American administration and added: "Deputy premier-designate Issam Fares has connections that would make most people blush with envy."

Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bush, campaigned frequently with George W. Bush during his campaign and delivered one of the most celebrated speeches at the Republican National Convention in July.

At Tufts, Powell largely ducked questions about whether he would accept a position in a Bush administration, though Bush had hinted strongly that he would ask him to join.

And when asked if he thought it would be wrong for the nation's former top soldier to run the country's diplomatic corps, Powell told reporters after the speech that World War II Gen. George Marshall "was one of our most respected secretaries of state."

A Boston Globe story on the event said that Powell strayed from the appointed topic of the gathering, "Management of Crisis and Change: the Middle East," and focused largely in his ad-lib remarks on his upbringing in the South Bronx and the work he has done for children since retiring from the military.