Saturday, July 08, 2006

Sen. Orrin Hatch Orchestrates R&B Producer's Release From Dubai Jail With Help From "Multiple Ambassadors, A Prime Minister, A Prince, Lionel Richie".

The New York Times
That's What Friends in High Places Are For

LOS ANGELES, July 7 — Although collaborations happen all the time in pop music, they do not generally involve R & B hitmakers and Senator Orrin G. Hatch.

But the release of a music producer from a Dubai jail this week, quick on the heels of his conviction for drug possession, turns out to be a story of high-level string-pulling on the part of Mr. Hatch, the conservative Utah Republican and songwriter, along with Lionel Richie, the singer; Quincy Jones, the music entrepreneur; and an array of well-connected lawyers, businessmen and others, spanning cities and continents.

Dallas Austin, 35, who has produced hits for Madonna, Janet Jackson and others, flew home to Atlanta on Wednesday, after being released after midnight on Tuesday from a holding cell in a Dubai jail. Hours earlier Mr. Austin had been sentenced to four years in prison for carrying just over a gram of cocaine with him when he entered the country on May 19 to attend a birthday celebration for Naomi Campbell.

Senator Hatch made numerous phone calls on Mr. Austin's behalf to the ambassador and consul of the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington — Dubai is one of the seven emirates — and served as an intermediary for Mr. Austin's representatives, the producer's lawyers said.

"The senator was one of a number of people who were very actively involved," said Joe Reeder, the Washington lawyer, who, with an Atlanta colleague, Joel A. Katz, spent 10 days in Dubai working to secure Mr. Austin's reprieve.

Mr. Katz, an entertainment lawyer, represents both Mr. Austin and the somewhat less musically successful Mr. Hatch, a singer and songwriter who has recorded religious-oriented albums. After hiring Mr. Katz's firm, the senator last year took in $39,092 in income from music publishing, according to financial documents filed in May under the Ethics in Government Act.

The senator declined to be interviewed or to confirm details of his efforts on Mr. Austin's behalf, but he issued a statement acknowledging his involvement and said he was asked by Mr. Austin's lawyers to help.

A spokesman for Mr. Hatch said that the senator was a proponent of rehabilitation for drug offenders, and that he had worked to revise federal sentencing guidelines regarding cocaine, and, through legislation in 2005, had advocated treatment for nonviolent offenders and the easing of restrictions on medication to treat heroin addiction.

In the statement Mr. Hatch said he was "confident that this talented young man will learn from this experience." He did not say if he requested that Mr. Austin seek treatment.

Until word of the pardon came through in a call to the One and Only Royal Mirage hotel along the Dubai beach, where Mr. Austin's lawyers waited nervously for news of their client's fate, the release of Mr. Austin was not a certainty.

"This involved multiple ambassadors, a prime minister, a prince, Lionel Richie, the senator and religious leaders in Atlanta," Mr. Reeder said.

"The uniting factor of all these people — the religious leaders, the political leaders, entertainment figures and prominent private citizens — was humanitarian considerations," he said. "Where should this man be under these circumstances?"

Randy Phillips, Mr. Richie's manager, said Mr. Austin "happened to know the right people, and better than that, the right people were ready to step out on a limb for him, which doesn't happen that often."

Although Mr. Phillips called the efforts on Mr. Austin's behalf "the difference between going home and being in 'Midnight Express' " — referring to the harrowing 1978 film about a novice American drug smuggler forsaken in the Turkish prison system — such pardons are not a rarity in Dubai, authorities said.

Mr. Austin's troubles began on May 19, when he landed in Dubai for the three-day birthday party of Ms. Campbell at the opulent Burj Al Arab hotel. While far from a household name, Mr. Austin is a leading figure in the pop music world who has worked with artists including Gwen Stefani, Michael Jackson, Pink, TLC and, lately, Mr. Richie.

According to published accounts, the police at the airport pulled Mr. Austin aside at customs and searched him, finding a small amount of cocaine. He was taken into custody and held at a detention center, the al-Rashidiya jail.

Several of the principal players in the negotiation recounted what followed, including Mr. Austin's lawyers, Mr. Richie and Mr. Phillips.

Almost immediately, several parallel initiatives were undertaken to try to influence the United Arab Emirates government to show clemency to Mr. Austin, his lawyers said.

Mr. Katz, of the firm Greenberg Traurig, hired three local lawyers, two from Dubai, and one from neighboring Bahrain, who ensured the reduction of the initial charge of drug trafficking to mere possession, the lawyers said. Drug trafficking can carry a life sentence in the United Arab Emirates, while possession carries a much shorter jail sentence. Discussions began over securing a pardon for Mr. Austin, focusing on the argument that he had carried only a small amount of drugs for personal use.

Mr. Katz also contacted colleagues, including Mr. Reeder in Greenberg Traurig's Washington office. A senior lawyer in the same office, Nancy Taylor, worked for many years on Mr. Hatch's staff in the Senate. Ms. Taylor enlisted Mr. Hatch, who is influential in Dubai because of his support for the United Arab Emirates-based company DP World in the controversy earlier this year over its contract to manage important American ports.

At the time of the controversy earlier this year, which resulted in the jettisoning of the contract, Mr. Hatch said the United Arab Emirates was a good friend to the United States. "We don't want to kick the moderate Arab nations in the face," he said at the time.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jones, the legendary producer, and his friend Joe Robert, a Virginia real estate investor with interests in the Persian Gulf, became involved. Mr. Jones has played mentor to an array of current young pop and R&B stars, including Mr. Austin. Mr. Robert is also a friend of Mr. Austin's.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Robert began making calls to their contacts in the Middle East, including senior officials in the United Arab Emirates. Reached this week on a yacht off the coast of Spain, where he was with Mr. Jones, Mr. Robert said: "I know Dallas Austin; I consider him a very fine, upstanding individual, notwithstanding the mistake he made." He added, "This is not someone that belongs in a prison anywhere."

Meanwhile, other efforts continued, including a call from Mr. Katz to Prince Abdullah of neighboring Bahrain, and from Mr. Reeder to former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was consulted for a legal reference. Some of the principals said they believed that Mr. Austin's pardon had been secured from early on. Still, uncertainty weighed heavily on others, particularly Mr. Austin's lawyers.

Enter Mr. Richie, who enjoys a cult status throughout much of the Arab world and had performed twice this year in Dubai, where he has met various senior government officials.

In an interview Mr. Richie said that Mr. Austin's advisers arranged for the United Arab Emirate's consul in Washington, Abdulla Ali Alsaboosi, to call Mr. Richie for a character reference. "It was, 'Tell me what kind of guy is Dallas Austin,' " Mr. Richie said. "I said: 'Listen, this is a great guy. A gangster, a hoodlum, a thug, he's not.' "

Last Sunday Mr. Austin pleaded guilty to possessing 1.26 grams of cocaine and capsules of Ecstasy, telling the court he did not mean to break the law. The stage was set for a pardon by the ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. It came four hours after the plea, Mr. Austin's lawyers recalled. What remained was to execute the edict.

But that didn't happen until after the sentencing on Tuesday morning. Shortly after midnight, as American revelers half a world away celebrated Independence Day, Mr. Katz and Mr. Reeder got the call at their beachside hotel.

The lawyers quickly gathered their things and rushed to the airport, where they met Mr. Austin and boarded the next flight to New York.

On Friday Mr. Austin released a statement that said in part: "This unfortunate experience has had a profound effect on me, and I regret any grief caused to my family, friends and business associates."

The Dubai government gave no reason for the pardon. "In an issue like this it is not unusual," said Lt. General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, head of Dubai Police, who said he was speaking in general terms and could not discuss the case in detail. "It is preferable to me that a foreigner who is caught in something like this be returned home rather than be kept here in prison for four years, costing us lots of resources."

Mr. Tamim noted, however, that Mr. Austin had technically been deported and would most likely not be allowed to return to Dubai.

Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Dubai for this article.