Party Crasher

Back from the abyss, Sam Zakhem campaigns for the forgotten man: himself

Sam Zakhem casts a hungry eye on the milling bodies in the halls of the State Capitol. The press conference room is filling up nicely, but the crowd is mostly made up of well-wishers and business associates. Where are the cameras?

"Are any of the TV stations coming?" Zakhem asks.
An aide replies that she called them all. They were certainly invited to come. Zakhem nods.

"We'll give them another couple of minutes," he declares.
It's a metaphysical problem: How can you hold a press conference without the press? True, the media have other weenies to roast, including the legislature's first full day of business and the strangled child beauty queen in Boulder. But that doesn't quite explain why a man like Samir Hanna Zakhem--former state legislator, former U.S. ambassador to the Middle Eastern emirate of Bahrain and one of the most enduring political figures in the state--should be stuck in an existential farce, Waiting for Pujo. Or, at the very least, for Ernie Bjorkman.

The seconds tick by. No Pujo. No Bjorkman. Nobody even from the daily newspapers, for crying out loud.

Oh, they were all eager enough to write about Sam Zakhem four years ago, in the terrible summer of 1992, when he was indicted on twelve counts by a federal grand jury; everybody wanted a piece of him then. Having taken a princely sum from the government of Kuwait to lobby for American military intervention in the Persian Gulf, he was accused of failing to register as a foreign agent; accused of bilking the Kuwaitis out of millions; accused of cheating on his taxes. The bizarre case eventually fell apart--Zakhem was acquitted on two charges, and the rest were dropped--but not before it knocked him out of the race for the U.S. Senate. And now no one, it seems, has much interest in what Zakhem does--not even if he's about to launch the boldest political comeback bid in the state.

If any of this distresses the former ambassador, he gives no sign. He strides into the conference room beaming his Cheshire Cat grin. "Okay," he says. "We're going to announce the big thing."

Taking the podium, he's suddenly as solemn as if he's announcing the outbreak of civil war. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says, "I come before you today to announce my candidacy for chairman of the Colorado State Republican Party."

For several minutes Zakhem ticks off his qualifications for the job. He also takes a couple of jabs at Don Bain, the current state Republican chairman. Back in November Bain announced he wasn't going to run again, Zakhem notes; but only yesterday, on the eve of Zakhem's formal announcement, Bain declared that party activists had persuaded him to seek a third term in the post.

Unlike Bain, "I'm not being pressured into this position," Zakhem boasts. "I'm seeking it willingly, wholeheartedly, vigorously...I have what in the Marine Corps they call semper fidelis. Always faithful! Despite the doors being blocked in my face by members of my own party, I never wavered."

The reference to blocked doors is the closest Zakhem will come on this day to acknowledging the personal baggage he brings to the race for party chair: He wants those doors open again. The 1992 indictment cost him not only considerable time, money and personal agony, but also the goodwill of many of his colleagues. The affair wounded him deeply, by calling into question the one quality that the proud, flag-waving Lebanese immigrant had always offered to voters as his essence: his patriotism. Only a return to the good graces of his party, even in a voluntary, thankless post such as state chairman, can heal such a wound.

But, as the scantily attended press conference makes clear, not every Republican is enthusiastic about Zakhem's quest. Even before his indictment, Zakhem had his detractors within his own party. Despite his long record of service, he is regarded in certain quarters as a liability, if not an embarrassment. "He's not exactly their man of the year," quips one veteran lobbyist.

Although Bain denies that his decision to run again was prompted by Zakhem's candidacy, he readily admits that local and national party officials are concerned about who's going to be steering the ship the next two years, during what promises to be a volatile period of campaign reform, term limits, and the 1998 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. They "twisted his arm" to get him to reconsider, he says.

"My arm has been broken in more places than Ben Campbell's after he fell off his motorcycle," Bain jokes. "I've been praying that someone would emerge who would be acceptable to the central committee and the leadership of the party. But at this point, that does not appear to be the case."

Zakhem's candidacy perplexes Steve Curtis, the Denver County Republican chairman, who's also seeking the state post. "It just bewilders me that he's running," Curtis says. "I don't have anything personally against the guy. I barely know him. But since ethics is such a hot issue right now, I just can't imagine it's the best thing for the party to have [Zakhem's case] dragged up again. There's a responsibility there that's maybe not being addressed, to do the right thing for the party."

The three-way race will be decided March 22 by a vote of the Republican State Central Committee. Zakhem's base of support may be weaker than that of the patrician Bain or activist Curtis, but he can't be counted out. Despite operating out of a district in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans 4-1, he managed to win three terms in the state legislature in the 1970s and made a surprisingly strong showing statewide in the 1980 U.S. Senate primary race. In 1992, with news of his impending indictment spreading like influenza, he still managed to pull more than 20 percent of the party's support for Senate, coming in second to Terry Considine at the state convention.

In each race, Zakhem did what he always does: press the flesh. Work the crowds, no matter how small. Ignore the media (or absence of same). A tireless campaigner, this time around he's vowed to visit party loyalists in all 63 counties and to reach out to women, minorities and other constituents not commonly linked to the Republican white-bread image. The 61-year-old former ambassador is setting himself up as a man of the people, champion of the little guys, in contrast to Bain, an attorney with strong ties to the GOP elite.

"I bet there are lots who don't want to see Sam Zakhem as state chairman," says Zakhem, who, like Bob Dole and Deion Sanders, has a habit of referring to himself in the third person. "But the common people, the heart and soul of the Republican Party, are with Sam Zakhem. Believe me."

He smiles conspiratorially, as if about to reveal a great secret.
"It's more important to have popular support than to have a million bucks in your pocket," he says. "Nobody knows more than the people. That's why I wanted a trial by jury."

The rise and fall and rise of Sam Zakhem poses an awkward situation for GOP leaders. On the one hand, his is the kind of success story that warms conservative voters' hearts, the tale of a humble immigrant in relentless pursuit of the American dream. But he's also every party boss's worst nightmare, a blustering, unpredictable superpatriot who seems to get into more hot water than a busload of Bavarian tourists in Glenwood Springs.

Zakhem's early life reads like something out of a Horatio Alger story. Born in Lebanon, the youngest of eight in a well-to-do Eastern Catholic family, Zakhem first came to the United States as a young man, seeking a little postgraduate education before returning to his native land. He stayed on, much against his parents' wishes, and was cut off from the family fortune. Working nights ("I have to pick myself from the bootstraps and pull up," as he once put it), within a few years he had earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Colorado, shifted from liberal leanings to an archconservative view of the world, married a Baptist (Merilynn, a Denver native), gained his citizenship and launched a career in politics.

In 1972, distressed by the vigorous antiwar movement on the Boulder campus, he ran for the CU Board of Regents, finishing third in a field of seven. Two years later, in the midst of the post-Watergate apocalypse that swept Gary Hart, Dick Lamm and dozens of other Democrats into office, Zakhem amazed the pundits by winning a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives from traditionally Democratic southwest Denver. He stayed there for two terms--long enough to cut a wide swath to the state Senate.

Zakhem's eight years as a lawmaker earned him plenty of attention, usually for the wrong things. He was better known for his over-the-top antics than for his legislation: jamming a voting machine on "no," for example, while he slipped away to make a phone call; leaving a courtroom without permission while being screened for jury duty (because, he claimed, he had to answer the call of nature); raising funds by such gimmicks as single-handedly challenging teams of five or six women to a volleyball match (which Zakhem, an Olympic-caliber player, invariably won); engaging in a memorable shouting match on the Senate floor with majority leader Ralph Cole.

Along the way, Zakhem did manage to sponsor his share of bills, including pioneering efforts dealing with solar energy, aid to the elderly, and tougher penalties for drunk drivers and employers who hire illegal aliens. But it was his endless crusading on moral issues that attracted the most controversy.

Even by the standards of Colorado's conservative "House Crazies," Zakhem's proposals were a bit heavy-handed: A bill to cut off state-funded abortions (killed). A bill that would compel local schools to give creationism "equal time" with evolution (killed). A bill that would deny alimony payments to ex-spouses living with members of the opposite sex on a "continuing conjugal basis" (killed for several reasons, including the sponsor's inability to clarify what he meant by "conjugal").

His backers saw in Zakhem a deeply principled and committed man, a spokesman for the once-silent, increasingly "moral" majority. His detractors considered him a cornball, a buffoon, and worse.

"One of the least-respected and most unpopular lawmakers in the Colorado legislature," sniffed the Denver Post.

"A posturing politician with a genius for transforming honest expressions of patriotism and morality into grotesque acts of political exhibitionism," fumed the Rocky Mountain Journal.

But Zakhem was unapologetic. His views may have been unpopular, but they were sincere, he insisted, and that won respect from his constituents. "Politicians in general have very low credibility," he remarked in a 1981 interview. "When you're being criticized by those who are less credible, then you must have some guts and something in you that makes you shine, that they hate, that they don't have."

Even today, Zakhem says, "I really haven't changed. My views on pornography, on drugs, on abortion are very, very strong. But the manner in which I would approach solutions would differ now. We all grow up."

During the 1992 campaign, though, it became apparent that Zakhem wasn't quite as thick with the anti-abortion camp as he'd once been. That, he says now, was a direct result of something that had happened at home.

"My wife and I had an experience in 1981 where we lost a child," he says. "It was a matter of the life of the woman or the child. If my bill in 1979 for the rights of the fetus had passed, I wouldn't have been able to tell the doctors, 'Please save my wife.' I'm still strongly opposed to the public funding of abortion. I'll never advocate it, but who am I to impose my morals on others?"

Zakhem dropped out of public life briefly in the early 1980s, only to resurface in 1986 as the Reagan administration's ambassador to Bahrain. The appointment was sharply criticized in foreign-policy circles. Bahrain may be a small country, but it's also a critical ally of the United States in the oil-rich Persian Gulf; such sensitive assignments usually go to career foreign-service types, not political patronage amateurs. True, Zakhem was the first Arab-born American to become an ambassador, but he was also a Lebanese Christian dispatched to a primarily Muslim country--an act of diplomacy not unlike sending Woody Allen to Germany because he was born with the name Konigsberg.

Yet here, too, Zakhem confounded his critics. His personable, hands-on, gimme-a-hug style--so disarming with voters, lobbyists and reporters--proved a hit with the royals in Bahrain. (Knowing Arabic and having more than a passing familiarity with Middle Eastern politics also helped.) He moved his residence out of a traditional European compound and into the city proper, and he made a point of attending every Bahrainian funeral he could, regardless of the status of the deceased. Before long, he was playing tennis with the foreign minister twice a week, visiting the crown prince once a week, having breakfast with the emir every Friday.

"There was no cultural barrier after the first week I was there," Zakhem says. "The Shiites on the street would come up and kiss Sam Zakhem, so help me God. State Department professionals were jealous that an outsider was so successful. They thought I was socializing too much.

"I said, 'You fools! Don't you realize that in the Arab world, if you don't personalize the relationship, you won't have access to the emir or the king?' Look what happened in Iraq to the woman [former U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie] who couldn't even say hello to [Saddam] Hussein. The relationship was terrible. But so much of what we needed, Bahrain delivered."

Zakhem's mettle was tested early and often during his four years in the Persian Gulf. He worked closely with the Bahrainian government to rescue survivors after the 1987 Iraqi missile attack on the U.S. frigate Stark. ("I convinced the government to help us, despite threats, to save our boys from the shark-infested waters," he says.) He tangled with the CIA over its assessments of the emirate's stability. His chumminess with the royals may have alarmed his superiors--at one point he was recalled from his post, reportedly for operating outside official channels--but it also earned him praise from Secretary of State George Shultz and Ronald Reagan himself, who said that on Zakhem's watch, Bahrain became "America's best friend in the world."

His trailblazing ambassadorship remains a source of tremendous pride to Zakhem. He still uses the honorific at every opportunity; it shows up on his plane tickets (this week Ambassador Zakhem jets to Washington to support Colorado developer Jim Nicholson's bid to lead the Republican National Committee), his business cards (Ambassador Sam H. Zakhem, vice-president for the Middle East region for Medlink International, a Denver-based hospital management and consulting firm), his campaign literature ("Ambassador Sam Zakhem, Ph.D."). Yet it was precisely this eagerness to exploit the valuable connections he made during his foreign service that landed the ex-ambassador in the fight of his life.

Zakhem came back from Bahrain just in time to capitalize on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War. As a self-styled expert on Middle Eastern affairs--"With all due respect to the State Department, there is no man alive today who knows as much as Sam Zakhem knows about the Arab gulf," he claims--he was in great demand as a speaker and consultant.

He soon hooked up with William R. Kennedy Jr., a precious-metals broker and former publisher of Conservative Digest, and conservative journalist Scott Stanley Jr. in a lobbying effort on behalf of American military intervention in the Perisan Gulf. The effort began under the auspices of an organization Kennedy had started, the Coalition for America at Risk, but it soon evolved into a group known as the Freedom Task Force. When asked, Zakhem's associates usually told reporters that the group was funded by citizen donations.

Zakhem says he gave 254 speeches and met with "numerous" members of Congress in support of the war effort. "I think it's one of my greatest contributions to this country," he says. "I did exactly what I did during Vietnam--rally support for the president. And despite all we did, 45 senators voted against the commencement of Desert Storm. Don't forget that. We did a tremendous service to this nation."

The Justice Department didn't look at it that way. The 1992 indictment charged that the Freedom Task Force was bankrolled by the government of Kuwait, and that Zakhem, Kennedy and Stanley had failed to register as foreign agents before lobbying government officials, as required by law. In addition, the indictment claimed that less than a third of the $7.7 million the Kuwaitis had shelled out for the "propaganda campaign" had actually gone to media advertising. The rest had been diverted to the patriots' own uses, including $1 million in "consulting fees" sent to Zakhem's brother Khalil in Lebanon. Zakhem himself had failed to pay sufficient taxes on his cut of the take, the government charged.

That spring, rumors of the grand jury investigation prompted two of Zakhem's top aides to resign from his U.S. Senate campaign. Against his attorneys' advice, Zakhem held a press conference to announce that the government was looking into his affairs, dooming his hopes of election. He still insists that the indictment was politically motivated, a charge that prosecutors have emphatically denied.

"I really think I was a viable candidate in 1992," Zakhem says. "Had I been left unfettered by those bogus, horrible, nasty, frivolous charges that they threw at me, I think I could have won. May God forgive them."

He sighs. Life is looking up for Sam Zakhem, no question about it, but he can't quite shrug off the memory of what he calls the "dark days," the three years it took to reach an acquittal.

"They threw at me a million tons of mud in hope that a trace would stick," he says. "But I said then, and I say now: Those who question the integrity of this grateful immigrant, those who question the patriotism of Sam Zakhem, are going to end up with so much mud on their faces. And they had the mud, and I had the last laugh."

It took the government more than four years to build its case against Zakhem and the Freedom Task Force. It took a Denver jury 28 minutes to decide the indictment wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.

The case that went to trial in 1995 was a faint echo of the original indictment. The lead prosecutor had left the U.S. Attorney's office months earlier, and his successor decided to dismiss charges that Zakhem had conspired to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act and had lied to federal investigators. The obscure foreign-agent law has its share of loopholes, and Zakhem and his associates were hardly alone in ignoring it.

That left a convoluted tax case, based on Zakhem's failure to report $350,000 in Kuwaiti money on his tax returns; his shuffling of cash from account to account in what prosecutors charged was an attempt to conceal income; and the ambassador's alleged conversation with Keith Danley, a Kennedy associate, about how to beat the IRS.

Taking the stand in his own defense, Zakhem insisted that the $350,000 was a gift from former Kuwaiti ambassador Saud Nasir al Sabah, not a consulting fee. No different, really, from a steak dinner or a commemorative tiepin a fellow might receive from a grateful friend--in this case, a profoundly grateful, obscenely rich friend. He pointed out that he'd already paid nearly half a million dollars in taxes on a reported income of $1.5 million he'd received from the Kuwaitis, so why would he try to hide a paltry $350,000?

Zakhem also denied discussing tax-evasion schemes with Danley, whom he barely knew. As for the funneling of cash through a series of accounts, some of them set up in his brother's name, Zakhem's lawyers argued that the "silly and goofy things" their client chose to do with his tax-free gift had no bearing on the case at hand.

The jury agreed. They acquitted the former ambassador on two charges of failing to report income, and the government promptly dismissed the remaining eight charges. The charges against Stanley and Kennedy evaporated, too. (Kennedy, though, had already been convicted in an unrelated case of racketeering and money laundering, in which he'd bilked conservative, mostly elderly investors out of $37 million through bogus "crisis investing" schemes.)

Ringed by family and supporters, a jubilant Zakhem called a press conference at the State Capitol to celebrate his acquittal. He says now that the case should never have gone as far as it did. His activities on behalf of Kuwait had the blessing of senior Bush officials, he insists, and he even provided prosecutors with a letter from Ambassador Saud al Sabah, explaining about the $350,000 gift--but it wasn't allowed as evidence.

"They knew there was no reason for a trial," Zakhem says. "But they not only wanted to discredit me, they wanted to destroy me and my family. If any of them was subject to the scrutiny I was subjected to and baptized by the fire I was baptized in, he would smell, as my friend [Post columnist] Chuck Green said, like a dirty diaper in the sun."

Far from breaking him, the ordeal only further inflamed Zakhem's fevered populism. Sounding eerily like Charles Duke, he grumbles about the "Gestapo tactics" of the federal government and vows, "If God ever allows me to be in a position to make laws again, I will clip the wings of the IRS. They are an extra-constitutional agency."

His only regret, he says, concerns his relationship with Kennedy, whose firm, Western Monetary Consultants, filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 1988 and was already under federal investigation at the time Zakhem joined forces with him.

"The association didn't help me," Zakhem acknowledges. "I liked him. I thought he was a decent Christian. I was not aware of the problem he was facing or the magnitude of it. When I became aware of it, I cut my relationship with him."

It's difficult to gauge what impact, if any, the Freedom Task Force's efforts had on the Gulf War itself. Arguably, the Kuwaitis got much better value for their money when they paid $12 million to public-relations giant Hill & Knowlton to orchestrate a national saber-rattling campaign; that campaign included testimony before Congress about alleged Iraqi atrocities in occupied Kuwait that was provided by a young woman known only as Nayirah--later identified as the daughter of Zakhem's good friend, Saud al Sabah.

Still, it seems clear that Zakhem's lobbying made him a rich man. And despite his acquittal, despite his claims of vindication, the venture left behind a string of troubling questions about his business judgment and his influence-peddling that could mar his bid for the state GOP chairmanship.

Indeed, the timing of Don Bain's decision to run suggests some kind of preemptive strike, generated by officials' alarm at the prospect of Sam Zakhem leading the party faithful. Zakhem can't help feeling sandbagged by the move; he says he talked to Bain twice in December--in order to be sure the chairman was stepping down--before declaring his own candidacy.

"I hope people around the state will ask, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Zakhem says. "There's nothing worse than being pushed to volunteer. It behooves those elected officials, the bigshots, to realize they're not the masters. The biggies should not pretend like they're God and impose a state chairman on the rest of us."

Bain, though, says the timing was simply coincidental. Not wanting to face "relentless lobbying" by GOP leaders at an upcoming retreat at the Broadmoor, he decided it was time to declare himself.

"I've been hesitant," he admits. "But although I'd said no, I had not said hell no. I told Sam that. I think he either heard or interpreted that as saying I was absolutely not going to run, which is not what I said."

Bain's declaration complicates matters for Zakhem. Not only does he have to take on a popular chairman--someone who, Zakhem admits, "did a good job" steering the state party through the critical 1996 elections--but he must stave off the challenge of a popular county chair, 37-year-old Steve Curtis, who also represents himself as a "populist" seeking to embrace members of the party who've been neglected by the GOP elite.

"I see Bain as the status quo and Zakhem as an interesting character, part of the old way of doing politics, and myself, obviously, as the clear contrast here," says Curtis. "This last election, we took thousands of phone calls from Republicans feeling left out of the process...I was embarrassed to belong to a party that seemed so anemic. Personally, I don't think it's above a state chair to go out and talk to people."

Neither does Sam Zakhem. "What experience does Don Bain share with the people of La Jara?" he asks. "Or Costilla County, where I went and played volleyball with the kids and spoke to the farm bureau? What does he know about Saguache?"

Sam Zakhem plans to visit all of those places and more. It's the local party officials, after all, who have the ear of the central committee and will decide on the new chairman, not the party "biggies." And Sam Zakhem wants their vote.

"I'm going to go to Weld County," he says. "I'm going to go to Park County, to Fremont County, to Chaffee County. I'm going to go to Arickaree. I'm going to go to Limon, to Hugo, to McClave, to Wiley. I'm going to seek even the Democrats and change them into Republicans."

A Zakhem-led GOP would recapture the governor's office, he says. Not that Zakhem has his eye on such a post himself; the only public office that still interests him is the U.S. Senate, he says, where he could play an active part in shaping foreign policy. But the Republicans already have a waiting list for that seat in 1998--if not Ben Campbell, then Scott McInnis, Zakhem figures. In any case, "by winning the state chairmanship, I'll be taking myself out of that race," he says.

No sacrifice is too great, though, for Sam Zakhem. Sam Zakhem merely wants to serve his party, as it's served him these many years.

"I don't mean it to sound arrogant," he says, "but America doesn't have too many Sam Zakhems.

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